If I asked you at the beginning of the year, which horror legacyquel would’ve sent its respective franchise in a bold new direction, would you have guessed Saw X or The Exorcist: Believer? Think about it for a second. Saw has been a rudderless series for over a decade, and the latest installment in the Exorcist franchise is helmed by the same guys who took Halloween in bold, new directions. If you guessed the underdog (Saw X), your optimism was surely rewarded last weekend.
When it comes to The Exorcist: Believer, if you’re at all religious, you might need to tap into your reserve to see if you could spare any grace and forgiveness for director David Gordon Green and his longtime collaborating partner Danny McBride. 50 years after William Friedkin’s early-70s horror-drama scared audiences sick, and still finds itself hailed as one of the best works of the genre, Green and company seem frustratingly content with regurgitating the same possession tropes with which we’ve become familiar during that lengthy gap of time. A mixed bag of a trailer should’ve been our warning, but with the depth of talent behind this, there was reason to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Screenwriters Green and Peter Sattler (working off a story by Green, McBride, and Scott Teems) focus on a photographer named Victor (Leslie Odom Jr, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery), a single father left with the responsibility of raising his 13-year-old daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), following her mother’s death in childbirth. Victor might be overprotective, but his guard slips when Angela and her friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), decide to go for a walk in the woods only to go missing. They turn up three days later, some 30 miles away with scratches on their feet, with no memory of how they got there and no realization of the passage of time.
Almost immediately after they reappear — with no time at all to milk the suspense and impending dread — both Angela and Katherine start exhibiting signs of demonic possession. They speak in tongues, they inflict pain on their loved ones, and produce more than a few strange bodily fluids in the process. Victor rejects religion, but some advice from his well-meaning, God-fearing neighbor, Ann (Ann Dowd), knows something is up with the girls. She loans him a book by none other than Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), mother of Regan, the possessed girl from the original Exorcist. Chris has studied exorcistic practices across cultures, and counsels Victor about how to save Angela.
You can practically feel the presence of substantive ideas about the universality of exorcisms across all the world’s religions bubbling under the surface. Sattler and Green wrestle with the thought that the commonality of all religions having some form of exorcism practically makes the concept secular. What builds to a climax of Victor and several parties of different faiths, backgrounds, and creeds coming together to handle the possession of Angela and Katherine themselves winds up becoming a cacophonous symphony of humans shouting, demons lurching, and lights flickering.
That’s right, this is the first film to lack a true “Exorcist,” for the most part at least. It’s another bold move from a co-writer/director that was unafraid of making Halloween Ends one of the most polarizing horror films in recent memory. This time around, the risky decision backfires due to the film’s sometimes appalling lack of depth.
Green’s decision to make Jamie Lee Curtis the focal point of Halloween (2018) and portray her as a (realistically) paranoid prepper laid the groundwork for the two sequels that followed. Being that The Exorcist: Believer marks the return of Ellen Burstyn, one would hope that Sattler and Green don’t simply make her reappearance a glorified cameo with a couple monologues about how a tight-knit community of people can defeat demons. Low and behold, that’s all Burstyn’s appearance amounts to, which begs the question, why disturb the 90-year-old in the first place?
Also consider the blandness of our protagonist, Victor. His defining personality trait is being a protective father. Late in the film, the focus shifts to Dowd’s Ann, so she can redeem herself for a past sin by ridding Angela and Katherine of their demons. But when Ann takes centerstage, the writing fails to give her an impacting moment. To be fair, Victor doesn’t have much of a presence during the exorcism either. He’s paralyzed to the point where all he can do is appear shocked.
The Exorcist: Believer is a grave misfire for a film hopeful on starting another trilogy using resurrected IP. It’s superficial to its core, so much so that it’s not even the best exorcism movie to be released in 2023. It leaves one to ponder the thought that Green and McBride were seriously invested with their reimagining of Michael Myers, and when those films were met with strong financial numbers, Universal made them an offer they couldn’t refuse to go for round two. This is quite an inopportune horror franchise to make your sophomore slump.
NOTE: The Exorcist: Believer is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Leslie Odom, Jr, Ann Dowd, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, and Ellen Burstyn. Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!