Few filmmakers have lowered themselves to such great heights as David Gordon Green. The Richardson-bred director earned rapturous early acclaim for his naturalistic, acutely observed human dramas. But beginning with 2018’s Halloween, he has lately taken such a hard swerve into bland, journeyman franchise work, it verges on defiant artistic choice. Certainly the success of Halloween has opened new doors for Green, even if they all lead into the same cursed rooms: Halloween was quickly followed by two diminishing-returns sequels, along with an HBO deal to similarly revive the Hellraiser series. And now it’s conjured up The Exorcist: Believer, an equally superfluous rehash of one of horror’s most venerated properties—dismayingly, the first of a planned trilogy that promises to keep Green plugging away through at least the rest of the decade.
What could possess anybody to make a new sequel to The Exorcist, that 1973 landmark whose reputation as one of the most innovative and shocking films ever made remains undiminished, even after four middling-to-disastrous official follow-ups, a short-lived TV series, and countless imitators besides? For Green and his executive producer/enabler, Jason Blum, it wasn’t the power of Christ that compelled them, or even a particularly good story. Blum, whose own credits include several of those Exorcist-“inspired” tales of demonic possession and child endangerment, recently told Forbes that he just really, really wanted to make an Exorcist movie, so he took the Elon Musk route and simply spent enough money until somebody let him. The Exorcist: Believer was born out of his genuine love for the material—or at least, for how it looks in his portfolio.
Green, meanwhile, has spoken of his desire to “honor the original” Exorcist, offering the obligatory genuflection to horror aficionados, filmdom’s most (understandably) mistrusting fandom. Unlike Halloween, which earned a grudging sign-off from John Carpenter, Green didn’t secure the blessing of the old guard this time. Exorcist director William Friedkin died in August, before Green had the chance to show him the film—or even discuss it with him. But much as he’d cajoled Jamie Lee Curtis into a homecoming for Halloween, Green did manage to rope in an Exorcist veteran for Believer: Ellen Burstyn, who reprises her role as Chris MacNeil, the harried single mother who watched helplessly as a demon infested her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Burstyn has turned down many Exorcist sequel offers over the decades, but reportedly she caved after the producers promised to fund a hefty scholarship to the university where she teaches, which at least gives her participation here the ring of nobility.
Burstyn’s return also elevates The Exorcist: Believer into the realm of the “legacy sequel,” that haughty euphemism for nostalgic exploitation that has coiled, constrictor-like, around so many of our most beloved intellectual properties of late. But unlike Curtis in Halloween, where her Laurie Strode was reintroduced as a hardened survivalist, The Exorcist: Believer struggles to justify roping in Burstyn for another dance with the devil, offering only the risible explanation that she has since become “an expert on exorcisms.” Not an exorcist, MacNeil repeatedly reminds everyone, but she did, you know, read a lot of books about them, and she even wrote one of her own. This, by the way, has cost Chris her relationship with her daughter, who apparently resents her mother shamelessly cashing in on her story (something I choose to believe is a self-aware joke from Green, although that would make it one of very few in a film that’s otherwise relentlessly dour).
Mostly, Burstyn is there solely to create the flimsiest of links to the original, something that The Exorcist: Believer shores up by restaging The Exorcist’s same basic plot line, along with the lion’s share of its scares. This time, the devil goes down to Georgia, where he quickly claims squatter’s rights over not one, but two young girls teetering on the terrifying verge of womanhood: Angela (Lidya Jewett) is the headstrong daughter of lonely widower Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), while her best friend, Katherine (Olivia Marcum), is the maybe-not-so-good-girl whose parents, Tony and Miranda, (played by Norbert Leo Butz and Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles) are devout Southern Baptists. After Angela and Katherine sneak off into the woods one afternoon, then turn up days later sporting strange sores, vacant stares, and a tendency to scream blasphemous obscenities, their worried parents team up with a nosy ex-nun neighbor (a slumming Ann Dowd) and Burstyn’s MacNeil to send Satan packing. In no time we’re off to the exorcism races: crucifixes are stabbed, heads twist around, bodies levitate, and various insults are croaked.
Not content with merely aping its predecessor, The Exorcist: Believer also feels like a shameless rehash of Green’s own Halloween trilogy, down to its inordinate number of scenes set in hospital rooms. Like Halloween, the film is girded by the same themes of grief, trauma, and familial estrangement; it strains toward a similarly murky point about the power of community. It even ends with another ponderous monologue about the true nature of evil, a speech that feels cobbled together from the leftover scraps of Halloween’s own term-paper soliloquies on the subject.
More than anything, though, The Exorcist: Believer commits the cardinal sin of every sequel, reboot, whatever: It adds absolutely nothing to the story, saying nothing that the original did not already say more effectively or inventively, offers nothing beyond its value as a recognizable property. At least Green’s Halloween, for all its faults, gave us the sight of a jacked-up Jamie Lee Curtis springing booby traps on Michael Myers. The Exorcist: Believer drags Burstyn back to hell, then sidelines her almost immediately, in a way that seems not just pointless but cruel.
On the plus side, Jewett and Marcum do commendable work as the possessed, with Marcum in particular tapping into that shadowy interplay between sneering malevolence and girlish innocence that made Blair’s Regan so uniquely terrifying. And the film’s reliance on prosthetics, makeup, and other practical illusions—producer Blum famously disdains digital effects—gives Believer a convincingly tactile creepiness that distinguishes it from so many other CGI-enhanced imitators.
And of course, Green still knows where to set a camera, intermingling all the tedious eye-gouging and puke-spewing with scenes that thrum with the kind of autumnal warmth, sun-speckled light, and meditative beauty that once marked him as the next Terrence Malick, so very long ago. It’s these little moments that it most seems like Green’s soul must still be trapped in there somewhere, furtively scratching “HELP ME” on an increasingly shallow body of work.
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