50 years (50!) ago, William Friedkin’s horror classic The Exorcist was released upon an unsuspecting world, terrifying audiences, upsetting the moral do-gooders and becoming the biggest box-office hit of 1973. Since then, various studios and filmmakers have tried to tap back into that well, often in vain, starting with John Boorman’s bold but unsatisfying Exorcist 2: The Heretic and including original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty’s sinister Exorcist III: Legion, that managed to capture the dark sense of unease and doom that Friedkin created. The less said about the ill-fated Exorcist prequels, helmed by both Paul Schrader and Renny Harlin (who reshot most of Shrader’s film when studio execs deemed it not ‘Exorcisty’ enough) the better.
Now Universal, Blumhouse and David Gordon Green, hot off of their Halloween trilogy, are marking the 50th anniversary of the original with The Exorcist: Believer (much like they did with Halloween 2018, 40 years after John Carpenter’s classic was released.) And despite having a good premise and a grounded, dare I say (kind of) realistic take on the material, it proves that films shouldn’t be rushed into production just to meet a release date.
The film begins in Haiti, where Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves), are caught in a devastating earthquake, forcing Victor to make a terrible choice about who to save - his wife or his unborn daughter. Cut to ten years later, with Victor and his now teen daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) living a relatively normal life in Georgia. But Angela has questions about her deceased mother that Victor cannot answer, so she and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) sneak into the woods to try and contact Sorenne via a seance. After they don’t return home that night, a frantic manhunt ensues. When they are found in a horse stable three days later with no memory of the previous three days, it isn't long before the girls start exhibiting strange and unsettling behaviour. Before long, we are back in Exorcist territory with the return of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), and the battle for the two girls’ souls begins.
The first hour of Believer was really strong - more of a dark crime drama with supernatural elements. It felt like Gordon Green was doing his own thing with the material (as he did in Halloween Kills and Ends). But once Chris MacNeil returns and the Catholic Church gets involved, you can feel the weight of predetermined story beats and studio notes take its toll on the script and indeed, the director. Whereas in his 2018 Halloween requel, Gordon Green managed to marry the needs of the audience (Myers stabbing lots of people / Jamie Lee Curtis being a badass) with his desire to examine the trauma inflicted on Haddonfield by the boogeyman, here the mandated beats (foul-mouthed possessed girls / vomit / holy scriptures being shouted at top volume) aren’t freshened enough to make them satisfying (although the head-spin was a nasty surprise) or new. And when you are making a direct sequel to one of the scariest movies of all time, that’s an issue. Also, the sense of unease and creeping dread of the first half lessens in the second half, right when things should be ramping up.
I would have almost preferred Gordon Green to go with his gut and stick to the dark mysteries and family drama of the first half rather than slip into the well-worn requirements of the sub-genre, which frankly have been done to death at this point, in dozens of cheap (and not-so-cheap) knockoffs over the past fifty years. While the script raises some interesting points about belief (Victor doesn’t or can’t believe in God after what happened to his wife) and how different religions view possession (the mixed religions present at the exorcism were a pleasing addition), they are never fully explored and feel more like unsatisfying window dressing.
The performances are good across the board, with Leslie Odom Jr. anchoring the film as a father trying to save his daughter, and Jewett and Marcum are great as the twin possessees, but the film has too many characters and doesn’t dig into their respective beliefs to make the tensions and conflicts of the climactic exorcism fully work.
Halloween Kills and Ends have their fair share of detractors, but I personally loved them (especially Ends), and I hope that if Gordon Green does get to finish this trilogy, he is allowed to get weird and bold with them and give us something new, rather than the reheated tropes he offers up in the back half of this film.
3 crucifix stabbings out of 5.