Even fifty years after its release, William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty's 1973 masterpiece 'The Exorcist' has not lost an ounce of its power. A near-perfect film, executed with staggering restraint and unparalleled fury, it not only horrifies on an almost primal level but also offers perhaps the most moving depiction of faith in any American film. Within the annals of horror cinema, it still feels singular - as often as it has been imitated, there is still nothing remotely like it, and it continues to hold its reputation as a film of enormous cultural and artistic importance. For me personally, it comes second only to 'The Shining' as amongst my favourite horror films, and every time I revisit it, I'm left in a state of shock, sitting in the dark as the credits roll just trying to comprehend the enormity of its nightmare and its humanity.
The idea of 'The Exorcist' as a franchise though has never seemed to sit well. None of its various sequels or prequels have come close to recapturing the hurricane in a bottle of the original, though some of them are highly regarded amongst fans. It certainly did not feel like a franchise that justified being revived now, but one can imagine, after the (questionable) success of Blumhouse's 'Halloween' reboot trilogy, that they were casting their eyes around for which other properties could warrant a "legacy sequel". Perhaps it was the 50th anniversary to bounce off or perhaps it was the availability of the rights, but 'The Exorcist' is what they chose, once again handing the reins to 'Halloween' reboot writer and director David Gordon Green. Much like those films, Green and his writing team ignore the previous sequels with 'The Exorcist: Believer' and try to hitch their wagon directly to Friedkin's original.
Thirteen years after the death of his wife and the birth of his daughter Angela (Lidia Jewett, 'Hidden Figures') during an earthquake, photographer Victor (Leslie Odom Jr, 'Hamilton') finds himself caught in a nightmare when Angela and her schoolfriend Kathrine (Olivia Marcum) go missing for three days. When the girls are finally found, they have no memory of any time passing and begin to display disturbing, aggressive behaviour. Very quickly, Katherine's religious parents (in fact, anyone of any faith whatsoever around Victor) begin to suspect possession, and encouraged by his neighbour (Ann Dowd, 'Hereditary'), Victor reaches out to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, 'The Exorcist'), who after the possession of her daughter Regan, devoted her life to understanding what happened and the intricacies of possession and exorcism. Under her guidance, the whole community around the girls come together to cast out this demon possessing them.
It's clear from the moment it begins that 'Believer' is going to follow a similar path to the 2018 'Halloween', essentially replicating the core story elements and iconography with the sense of the original as some sort of sacred text. It worked to an extent with 'Halloween', but in this case, Green and his team have made a significant error of judgement - as sublime as John Carpenter's 1978 masterpiece is, 'Halloween' is not 'The Exorcist'. One of an aesthetically driven, primally simple fairy tale, while the other is one of the most thematically complex horror films ever made, shot like a documentary and grounded in a perceivable reality. Carpenter crafted Michael Myers into an almost supernatural being, an aberration on the real world. In 'The Exorcist', Friedkin made the Devil into something horrifyingly real, tangible, domestic, personal. Where Green could pillage the aesthetics of 'Halloween' without causing much damage to the legacy of the original, he can't to the same to 'The Exorcist'. It isn't that kind of film, and the fact he reduces it to one in the making of this sequel is the first of many insults this deplorable film delivers to the classic it is trying to honour.
SWITCH: 'THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER' TRAILER
Rather than having anything new to add to the ideas set in motion by Friedkin and Blatty in 'The Exorcist', 'Believer' reduces the whole thing to a tired formula, not only hitting all the same narrative points as the original but pulling in all the most obnoxious cliches of the endless rip-offs made in its wake. It's so concerned with scaring its audience with jump scares and creepy children saying creepy stuff and with making as much noise as it can, but all the noise just adds to its overall emptiness. The screenplay is also pieced together with endless scenes of characters sprouting Wikipedia-level facts on religion mixed with Facebook aphorisms on faith and belief, none of which sound genuine at any point. Of the film's many flaws, its treatment of religion is one of the most uncomfortable. There's a sense it thinks it is doing some good, identifying that exorcisms are common in a majority of belief systems and bringing a number of denominations together to achieve the exorcism, but the film doesn't make an effort to understand what faith and belief means. There's still a value judgement placed on the faiths presented in the film, not in the dogma they speak but in the behaviours of their congregations. Katherine's evangelist family are presented as aggressive, delusional, forceful and wilfully ignorant, so much so that when they propose the idea of possession, you think they sound ridiculous in a film where you know the Devil and possession are actually real. The respect and space given to religion as having a legitimate social function is one of the key aspects of the original, helped by the determination of Friedkin to make the film as accessible for a religious audience as an atheist. This film, like so many run-of-the-mill exorcism and possession films, uses religion and faith as a narrative tool rather than a notion to be interrogated, right down to the endless interminable monologues the talented cast are forced to deliver where the subtext of the original is made woefully obvious.
This lack of nuance or care extends to the possessions themselves. I want to make it clear that none of the fault here lies with either Lidya Jewett or Olivia Marcum - both are doing strong work here with what they have, creating a palpable sense of chemistry and clearly having a ball when things really get going. The problem is that these possessions are less in the mould of 'The Exorcist' and more the likes of the 'Evil Dead' films but without the tongue-in-cheek comedy. The soul-shattering horror of the original was the way in which this entity totally and utterly violates the innocence of Regan, with shocking violence and assured confidence. It isn't just about the head spinning or the green vomit or the unholy masturbation, but the complete control it has over her body and voice, and the confident glee it has at subjecting Regan's loved ones and carers to the effects of that violation. The horror of 'The Exorcist' is seeing this young body and mind torn apart so completely. In 'Believer' though, it's just about having the girls do creepy things, scream a lot, say some mildly upsetting dialogue and enact CGI-driven mayhem. There's arguably very little that suggests this is religious possession by the Devil either - no speaking in tongues or languages the girls couldn't know, no uses of holy water as a test, not even any actual conversations with the possessing spirit to determine its identity. When the hapless Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla, 'Gemini Man') asks permission from his superiors to perform the exorcism and is rejected, you're like, yeah mate, there's no actual evidence here. These spirits act more like watered-down Deadites than the Devil, with none of the necessary fury or frightening ambivalence. It also doesn't help that the film resorts to the most tired cliches of creepy fucked-up faces over people's shoulders as cheap jump scares, like something out of a Conjuring film, a tactic the original never uses at any point. Two thirds into the film, I was genuinely confused as to what exactly this film thought it was a sequel to, because it certainly wasn't doing a very good job at being a sequel to 'The Exorcist'.
This lack of nuance or care extends to the possessions themselves. I want to make it clear that none of the fault here lies with either Lidya Jewett or Olivia Marcum. The problem is that these possessions are less in the mould of ‘The Exorcist’ and more the likes of the ‘Evil Dead’ films but without the tongue-in-cheek comedy.
Perhaps the greatest complaint I have about this turgid film though is, when the chaos finally kicks in, I genuinely do not care about any of these characters. We've been given plenty of active backstory about Victor and Angela, but most of it feels tired and derivative. What we're told about everyone else, we only learn through exposition-heavy monologues that make this two hour film feel interminably longer. Poor Katherine, we basically know nothing about, apart from that her parents don't deal well with stress and she goes to church. 'The Exorcist' was so careful to make sure we cared so much about Regan and Chris and Father Carras, even Father Merrin and Lieutenant Kinderman, so that when the unthinkable happens, it's both emotionally and visually upsetting. It's infuriating the degree to which this film makes nowhere near the same effort and then expects us to actually care an inch for the plight of any of these people. And then there's poor Ellen Burstyn, inexplicably dragged into this pointless film simply so she can establish some tenable link to the original. I was hoping her appearance in the film would be brief, perfunctory and pointless, but it turns out to just be pointless. There's no reason for her to be in this film and for this character to suffer the way she does, apart from a disgustingly obvious and manufactured story beat that you can see coming before the Universal logo has finished playing and feels so much more stupid the moment it finally happens.
I've spent a lot of this review pitting 'Believer' against 'The Exorcist', and at first this might seem unfair, the way it would be to compare any film to something as monumental as 'The Exorcist'. And yet at every turn, 'Believer' is actively placing itself in conversation with 'The Exorcist', though rather than actually conversing with it and engaging with its ideas and how its legacy may have evolved (which even the 'Halloween' trilogy does), the conversation here is the worst kind of movie buff yelling at you about how cool it thinks the original is and how sick it is when the girl's head spins and she vomits green stuff. If it had severed its ties to Friedkin's film, if it had simply been a film set within the universe of 'The Exorcist' where the Devil exists and uses a set of established tactics, with no connection to Regan or Chris at all, then maybe it could have been at least a passable exorcism film. By actively trying to emulate the original though and making its connective tissue so lazy and obvious, it's hard not to compare them, and in every single way, no matter how this film turned out, it was probably going to fail. That isn't to say it couldn't have worked - Mike Flanagan proved everyone wrong by having the audacity to make a sequel to 'The Shining' and delivering a film as superb as 'Doctor Sleep', but again, a lot of thought was put into how his film would engage with its monumental original. Green does nothing of the sort here. You can tell he's studied Friedkin's aesthetics - 'Believer' is at least a handsome-looking film and the editing and sound editing have some lovely flashes of imagination - but aesthetics are simply not enough. Where I felt the sense of love and reverence in 'Halloween', I didn't feel any of that love and affection here, which has to beg the question of what was the point of this thing in the first place?
I left 'The Exorcist: Believer' about as angry and frustrated by a film as I have been in a long time. It wasn't so much how insufficient it was as a companion piece to 'The Exorcist', as infuriating as that was. It was that I felt I had wasted my time watching a film that had nothing of value to offer me, even just as a piece of entertainment. It was, across the board, derivative and unimaginative and uninspiring. It stirred no feelings of fear or concern in me, no desire to root for its characters or engage with its narrative. The horror set-pieces were rote at best (the exorcism itself) and totally empty at worst (Katherine screaming in the church for no discernible narrative reason). 'Believer' is a film made purely for the purposes of a "cool" trailer with a few deceptively creepy bits and a poster that emulates the 70's aesthetic. It wouldn't even call it a consumer product, because that would suggest it had its consumer in mind. 'The Exorcist: Believer' is the best example of how insipid and insidious this whole "legacy" media obsession has become, filling cinemas and streaming services with this forgettable rubbish just to trick an audience member into minimal engagement before it's chucked on the trash heap with the others, wasting valuable opportunities for better, smarter filmmakers to engage with the great cinematic and television works of our past and create new, rigorous responses to them. If I see a worse film this year than 'The Exorcist: Believer', I will be very surprised. Send it back to Hell where it belongs.