With the recent nostalgia having already crescendoed (and seemingly begun its slow descent), it’s hard to muster much excitement for the “legasequel” – the colloquialism reserved for films meant to stand on their own and launch an old franchise anew while bringing back beloved character to appease original fans. While it has certainly worked well in a select number of cases (Creed, Top Gun: Maverick, etc.), the other 99% usually amount to average outings that elicit some emotions, but mostly eyerolls. That’s why David Gordon Green, fresh off his trilogy of Halloween legasequels, has made something truly extraordinary with The Exorcist: Believer. He has made a legasequel so unwatchably, unforgivably bad, it almost has to be seen to be believed.
After losing his wife during an earthquake in Haiti, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is highly protective of his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett). So it comes as a shock to him when Angela and her classmate Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) disappear without a trace. Three days later, the girls are found miles away in a barn; yet despite only suffering superficial injuries, it is clear that there is something deeply wrong with them. Soon Victor, along with Katherine’s parents (Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles) become convinced that the girls have been possessed by a demon, and with little experience as to how to proceed in saving their girls, they turn to the only person in the world who seems to know what it’s like for their child to be taken by The Devil: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
Due to the film’s inability to maintain its staying power amongst younger generations when compared to, say, the slashers of the 1980s, it is easy to forget that The Exorcist was and is a major deal. It was the highest grossing film of 1973, and when adjusted for inflation, it is still the ninth highest-grossing film of all-time, ahead of even Avatar. It was nominated for an unheralded ten Oscars, including Best Picture, and won two – the first horror film to achieve either feat. Hell, it was so popular that it inspired the greatest influx of new Catholics in over a hundred years, resulting in the Vatican reluctantly taking a stance of “we don’t condone the film, but don’t condemn it either.” It is an iconic film of grandiose quality and nature, and one of the most visceral studies of good and evil ever committed to film.
Which is why it is unsurprising that Hollywood has attempted to revive the franchise; and it is equally unsurprising that they botched the attempt so badly. Green has stuffed his film with conflicting, confusing stories that leave the overall narrative muddled and nonsensical. While there certainly could be something interesting in the themes of small-town community (especially when juxtaposed to the original’s big-city loneliness) and faith as a universal concept, the way the filmmakers attempt to mesh these ideas is confusing at best, lazy at worst.
Instead of leaning into leaning into the original film’s devout Catholicism (so ingrained in that film that the mere notion of the priests’ doubts in the face of an unstoppable foe felt all the more unspeakable), or approaching the new film with a 2020s nihilism, Green attempts to approach the film with a unitarian naiveté – a sense of “We’re all in this together.” Certainly a heartwarming notion, but the actual execution of having a bunch of Catholics, Baptists, and New Age spiritualists come together to sing “Kumbaya” at the demons just lacks any emotional weight. There’s even a voodoo priestess thrown in for good measure, which momentarily hints at a more honest approach to the complicated religion (a fascinating subject if you’ve ever read up on it) before ultimately resorting to rote stereotypical Othering.
Not a single choice in this film makes sense, from the characters or the filmmakers. There’s no concern for logic or execution – yes, even in the context of a film about a little girl possessed by a demon. The original kept some semblance of reality intact so that when Regan started contorting and levitating, it felt horrifying. Here, logic is broken so often and so ridiculously it can only elicit laughs. Take, for instance, Angela’s first signs of possession. She keeps popping up behind her dad when he’s trying to shave, and he returns her to bed. Yet she continues to pop up like a whack-a-mole, in places that should be impossible to reach. When she walks out from behind a door that should have been impossible for her to reach, it ultimately feels silly more than scary.
Yet Believer isn’t just a bad film on its own accord: it is also a complete besmirchment of the original classic. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of everything that made ThE Exorcist great. There’s nothing scary, nothing evil, just lazy brushstrokes based on a Cliff Notes summary of its predecessor. Most of the film consists of lazy nods to the original – tempered down, of course, as Friedkin’s unflinching look at the face of evil could never fly in the sanitized world of 2023. Green lifts the iconography – the subliminal glimpses of the demon, a slowed-down version of “Tubular Bells,” the famous lines – but never stops to question why they were so iconic in the first place. He’s Michael Scott, repeating the joke before admitting he doesn’t even understand it.
And that’s not to mention what the film does to Chris MacNeil. At no point does it feel that anyone involved had any understanding of the character. Her journey from 1973 is completely nonsensical – hell, it’s downright insufferable. In the original film, Chris is an ordinary woman, a loving mother horrified that her daughter is slowly dying due to a force she can’t understand. She witnesses true terror and evil at the hands of the force possessing her daughter. Yet here, she’s become a celebrity exorcist who has isolated said daughter and lamenting that she never got to witness the original exorcism – an event where two people died. “It’s the damn patriarchy,” she decries, shortly before immediately failing to exorcize the demon and being uselessly shuffled out of the film. It’s a waste of Burstyn, it’s a waste of the character, and it’s a waste of time.
Which may, in fact, be the film’s ultimate sin. There’s a lack of pacing or narrative flow that just leaves the film dull and uninteresting. We spend the first fifteen minutes of the film in a badly rendered CGI Haiti to establish a barely-necessary prologue. It then takes another forty minutes to reach the hospital scenes that both introduce the possession and hint at a better film that neer comes. While I don’t have a problem with dragging out the possession – the original film did as well – Green lacks an understanding of why this setup is necessary.
In The Exorcist, the reason it takes so long for Regan’s possession takes so long is so we meet the child about to be endangered. We see the love Regan and her mother share, and meet Regan as a person. We fall in love with Chris and especially Regan, so that when she becomes possessed, we truly fear for her and what will happen. Here, Angela and Katherine are possessed for 90% of the time we know them. We see a brief glimpse of them, they disappear, and then boom: they’re clawing people’s faces off. Since we don’t know them as characters, it is impossible to care, and if we don’t care, we’ll never feel that sense of dread horror is supposed to establish.
There is only one reason I’m not giving this film a total pan. During the film’s otherwise-abysmal climax, Green and his cowriters make a bold choice. I won’t spoil the sequence, because its shocking nature adds to the impact. But it is such an interesting decision, and filmed so horrifically and with the right amount of directorial flair, that it saves this film from abject failure. Of course, the irony of this sequence is that it is so well-made and so utterly frightening that it merely functions to point out the awfulness of the rest of the film. Something something “deal with the devil.”
I don’t really fault any of the actors in this film – there aren’t any truly bad performances. But it’s clear that no one’s heart is really in it. There’s no Jason Miller striving for Shakespearean catharsis. There’s no Linda Blair breaking our hearts as she fights for her life. And while Ellen Burstyn technically is here, she’s not giving an all-timer, Oscar-worthy performance as a terrified mother. She’s looking offscreen every chance she gets, trying to find her paycheck dangled just off camera. The only performer of any note is Ann Dowd as a nosy, religious neighbor who ultimately steps up in the moment of crisis, but even then she elicits little more than “Wait, why is the great Ann Dowd here?” No, best leave the actors alone – they’re here for the paycheck, and it is unfair to judge them on the merits of “quality.”
The Exorcist: Believer is an unholy abomination. It is almost masterful in its dedication to bad writing, bad direction, and bad characterization. It not only fails to grasp what makes the original film so terrifying, it completely fails to understand horror in general. Outside of two brief, bold choices, there is nothing in this film worth noting. It’s not scary, it’s not insightful, it’s not anything other than soulless. The only place Believer deserves to be screened is in Hell, where it may be used to torture the wretched for all eternity.
The Exorcist: Believer is now available to rent on VOD