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The Exorcist: Believer (15)

Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Scott Teems, Peter Sattler, David Gordon Green

Starring: Leslie Odom Jr, Jennifer Nettles, Ann Dowd

Review: David Stephens

Right on the heels of one long-running horror franchise (Saw X) comes the continuation of another. It’s fair to say that the legacy of the late William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has been a mixed bag. From the foundational cornerstone of the 1973 classic, there has been good (The Exorcist III), bad (The Exorcist II: The Heretic), and mediocre (both versions of the prequel). Oddly enough the Fox TV series was not bad at all and served as a direct sequel to the film, although the second season went off the rails a bit with its demonically possessed Vatican and was canned before it had a chance to wrap up apocalyptic storylines. Here’s director David Gordon Green though, who proudly announced the creation of another trilogy like his Halloween reboot (*groan*). And like that project, this ignores all the other entries (including the previously canon TV series) and incorporates Chris MacNeil into the narrative, played by the original actress Ellen Burstyn. Having its release brought forward one week to avoid the Taylor Swift concert film (true story, Bro!), it’s now in the US, UK, and global screens for an early Halloween release. So get exor-cited… or not… it’s your choice… we don’t judge.


The film starts in Haiti, with photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his heavily pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) on their honeymoon. Unfortunately, this means that they experience the devastating earthquake that hits the region at that time. Moving forward thirteen years and the narrative confirms the fate of Sorenne, as Victor ekes out a living in Georgia, whilst being a single parent to his spirited daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett). However, Angela and her best friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) sneak out to the ruins of an old cottage in the local woods to flirt with amateur spiritualism and try to contact Angela’s mother. No Ouija board or Captain Howdy this time folks. They promptly disappear for three days, only to be found huddling in a farm’s barn. But when they settle back in with their respective families… they’re notably different from before. That’s when a well-meaning pious neighbour suggests that Victor contacts an expert in this field… a certain Mrs Chris MacNeil, estranged mother of the mysterious Regan MacNeil.   


There are two main problems with TE: B. Problem No. 1 – The Exorcist is untouchable in terms of what it brought to the genre and how most horror fans see it. Like Jaws and Psycho, it doesn’t matter how many sequels, prequels, reboots, and shows adopt the name, you just cannot improve on the OGs. Fairly or unfairly, anything that tries to do that is going to have own the cojones to live up to severe scrutiny. Problem No. 2 – Aside from the other franchise entries, and just like Sharksploitation movies after Jaws, we have had an absolute avalanche of demonic possession movies that have not slowed down in the least since the 1970s. Seriously. Just go to IMDB and type The Exorcism of…  and The Possession of … and see how many results you get! And that’s not to mention all the “Exor-likes” that get more imaginative with their titles. Recent efforts like Prey for the Devil and The Pope’s Exorcist continue this “homage” right up to the present day.


What we’re getting at is that you better have something up your cinematic sleeve if you want to take that title and try to stand out from this extremely crowded subgenre. And to be frank… Believer doesn’t have what it takes to do that. More unforgivably, it actually manages to be dull and unscary into the bargain! But let’s backtrack a little. The beginning of the film apes the structure of the 1973 classic. There’s the ominous apocalyptic beginning, followed by the long drawn-out normal suburbia setting, which then descends into the hellish manipulation of innocent souls by ageless evil entities. Except, whereas the intrinsic character building of the original film leads to genuinely shocking moments and nightmarish scenarios, in this case, paper-thin leads are guided into unwinnable situations and mature religious themes are glossed over.


If this was another “possession of… “ film, we might have given it a slightly higher score. But like the recent Texas Chainsaw reboot on Netflix, it takes a brand and does little to honour it. Speaking of which, the character of Chris MacNeil is grossly underused and given somewhat insulting treatment, which is comparable to the crap way in which Sally Hardesty was handled in the Texas sequel. You can only think that Burstyn thought that Green was going to modernise and enhance the character similarly to Laurie Strode in the Halloween reboot. Nope. It feels like perfunctory fan service and adds very little to the story. The chance to modernise the theological stances of the first film is very much there and is flirted with in certain ways. The voodoo blessing at the start of the film and the interaction of a hoodoo practitioner (or “rootwork healer”) in the final act suggests that the multi-faith aspects of exorcism might be called into play. This could have been fascinating, given that it's mostly been the Roman Catholic take on demon-expelling that has been explored. Sadly, this only given a cursory “glance” in the plot and never makes any real difference to the proceedings. In fact, you have those with the Catholic faith, mix with unorthodox religions, as well as those that have become atheists… and there is very little conflict. Wishful thinking in modern society, to say the very least.  


Most of this would be eminently forgivable if there were compelling characters, mature religious themes, shocking scenes (NB: This is only a “15” certificate in the UK… so, no then … despite a C-bomb), and disturbing connotations. Pea soup vomiting and head oscillation? Well, you get only one of those, and it’s almost a throwaway scene. It’s the thinness of the characters that burns the most though. Odom Jr. is a heck of an actor, but he’s not given enough material to work with. Unlike Father Merrin,  Lieutenant Kinderman, or Damien Karras, Victor Fielding is almost a passive observer in the story. He only reacts to situations or supports others. The most demanding job he is given is to empty possessed water down the drain in the street (it makes sense in the film, sort of). Otherwise, he just looks aghast or baffled. You’ll genuinely be hard-pressed to remember the name of the priest (who refuses to exorcise!) or any one of the other “main” characters. In fact, it’s the two teenage girls that make the most impression, doing their very best modern-day Linda Blairs with real gusto and baleful side-eyes.


You’d think that the (overlong) journey to a climatic duel exorcism would be a horror fan’s dream, but it’s absolutely nothing that you haven’t seen before in any decent possession movie. There’s even a laughable CGI smoke fight instead of a war of attrition. Not good enough. On top of that, there’s a choice that’s laid before the participants which is either extremely bogus, daft, or disturbing depending on your point of view. What it isn’t, is an effective way to bring events to high-point. Compare the ending with Father Karras tumbling down the stairs and what it represented. Even the hastily studio-conceived rite and imagery in The Exorcist III ending was miles better than what is offered here.  


It's not that the film is irredeemably bad, although some of the trite lines (“We’ve got to go back before we can go forward”, “I live in the name of Jesus, I’ll give everything I’ve got!”) and cliched camera shots (spot the Insidious rip-off) don’t help matters. It’s just that with that legacy, it needed to have strong characters and provide a bold reinterpretation of existing themes. Needless to say, it has neither of these. Even if the “E” word wasn’t involved, this would have been a “meh” Halloween offering for this year, and it gives us no joy to state that. The janky version of “Tubular Bells” and a demon using the “Power of Christ compels you” quote in a mocking manner is not what most horror fans wanted. Gordon Green already has plans to release the second part of the trilogy (The Exorcist: Deceiver) this month in 2025, with the third part planned for a later date (The Exorcist: Teaser? The Exorcist: Freezer? The Exorcist: Geezer? whatever…). At this stage, most critics hate it (Mark Kermode had a veritable breakdown), but audience numbers are on par with what was roughly expected. It’s not what we wanted, but it might be what we deserve. Excuse us, whilst we go watch Saw X again to get the taste of cheap imitation pea-soup out of our mouths…

Possibly a harsh score, but it’s a real disappointment in terms of what it actually brings to the franchise. There’s twice the possession but half the horror and the opportunity to explore fresh themes in the possession subgenre is wasted. Paper-thin characters, sloppy pacing, and one (!!) measly jump-scare is not enough. Season one of the TV series was a better sequel by far.
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