‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: Ellen Burstyn Returns to Iconic Horror Franchise for a Hellishly Bad Legacy Sequel
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: Ellen Burstyn Returns to Iconic Horror Franchise for a Hellishly Bad Legacy Sequel

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: Ellen Burstyn Returns to Iconic Horror Franchise for a Hellishly Bad Legacy Sequel

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review: Ellen Burstyn Returns to Iconic Horror Franchise for a Hellishly Bad Legacy Sequel

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing me that a 2023 legacy sequel to “The Exorcist” might actually make good on its potential. Sure, David Gordon Green’s ultra-disposable trilogy of “Halloween” movies didn’t inspire much hope that he’d fare any better with an even more sacrosanct horror franchise; on the contrary, it suggested the former indie darling was dementedly hell-bent upon destroying every last trace of the promise he once showed). And sure, the head-spinning $400 million distribution deal that possessed Green to resurrect this brand was always going to be a mixed blessing — or a terrible curse — for a mainstream film whose market appeal is predicted on our collective memories of a pre-teen girl penetrating herself with a crucifix while shouting “Let Jesus fuck you!” 

But the fact that we’re living in a time of right-wing hysteria and renewed moral panic seemed as if it could be — should be — an invitation to channel the spirit of William Friedkin and make something that felt even a fraction as transgressive as the original “Exorcist” did in 1973. After all, the property belongs to a sub-genre that inherently reaffirms Christian dogma, and is therefore granted special permission to push the boundaries of what the church-going public is willing to bear.

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Despite the controversy that Friedkin’s classic provoked among the puritanical set, “The Exorcist” is ultimately as “faith-based” as any of the movies you might see advertised on Fox News today (and significantly less scary than any five minutes of “Gutfeld!”), and I hoped that returning the series to its roots might allow Green a chance to re-imagine Pazuzu for a generation of American parents who’ve been conditioned to fear a million different boogeymen in a country whose laws and reactionary political climate represent a far more direct threat to their children. 

(Editor’s note: The following sentence contains spoilers for “The Exorcist: Believer.)

My faith was profoundly misplaced — not only because “The Exorcist: Believer” is a hyper-conservative movie that spends its entire running time torturing its main character for prioritizing the well-being of his wife over the safety of her fetus (a choice that isn’t revealed to us until the end), but also because the only thing this hellish séance for ’70s-era profits actually holds sacred is its own intellectual property. 

(End spoilers.)

An execrable film that’s redeemed by almost nothing besides Leslie Odom Jr.’s well-modulated lead performance and the ambient sense of unease that Green casts over the story’s first half, “Believer” is so creatively spineless and bereft of its own ideas that its entire concept of sacrilege is limited to imperiling its franchise’s legacy. 


Perhaps that wouldn’t be such a sticking point if “Believer” didn’t also do such a lazy job of exhuming its franchise’s legacy. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more damning self-own in any recent film than the scene in which the demons inside of Green’s possessed tweens attempt to prove their unholiness by… repeating the exact same line of dialogue that riled audiences 50 years ago. If a nominal effort is made to imply that we’re dealing with the same demon who once made Linda Blair feel under the weather for a couple of days (no disrespect, but I’ve had sinus headaches worse than Pazuzu), that actually makes it even more embarrassing in the end: Evil never rests, and yet half a century of prep time — a span that included diabolical innovations like Reaganomics, the War on Drugs, and the rise of QR code restaurant menus — still wasn’t long enough for this prince of darkness to come up with some new shtick.

I suppose that’s to be expected at a time when such legacy sequels feel legally required to deliver more of the same. Based on a story credited to Green, Scott Teems, and Danny McBride, Green and Peter Sattler’s script plays the hits right from the start, as it echoes the original “Exorcist” by dropping us in a sweltering and “exotic” country far away from where most of the action will take place. Instead of Iraq, “Believer” opens in Haiti, and instead of a mood-setting prologue that’s steeped in mysterious atmosphere, it kicks off with a cheap jump-scare (and I mean with the very first frame, which anticipates a film whose sporadic jolts seem to have been added in post after it was discovered that Green accidentally forgot to include any other sources of tension).

 Of course, the scariest thing about this opening sequence isn’t a barking dog on the streets of Port-au-Prince, but rather the fact that anyone thought it was a good idea to glibly use the 2010 earthquake that killed somewhere between 100,000 and 316,000 people as the context for the choice that American tourist Victor Fielding (Odom) is forced to make between his way-too-pregnant-to-be-traveling wife and the fetus that looked like it was gonna pop out at literally any minute. It’s like when that unfortunate Robert Pattinson drama “Remember Me” used 9/11 as a plot twist, but even worse for how it co-opts another country’s national tragedy for its own inane cause. 

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“The Exorcist: Believer”

Cut to: Thirteen years later, when Victor is a single dad raising his daughter Angela — impressively committed newcomer Lidya Jewett — in a Georgia suburb so ripe for Satan that Ann Dowd is his next door neighbor. She’s cast against type as an emergency room doctor whose overzealousness disguises a genuine concern as opposed to a cultish ulterior motive, but it gets hard to tell the difference after it’s revealed that (minor, Dowd-related spoiler to follow) she’s an ex-nun who still regrets the abortion she had before taking her vows. 

Anyway, Victor is as overprotective over Angela as you might expect, and so it’s a watershed moment when he agrees to let his daughter hang out with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) after school. Angela tells him that they’re going to do homework together, but only because her dad would probably say no if she told him their actual plans for the afternoon: Walking into the creepy woods outside of school, wandering into a sunken nightmare of some kind, and accidentally opening a portal to hell in a misguided effort to commune with Angela’s mom. The specifics of their shenanigans are sketched out in broad strokes because the first half of the film is propelled by the mystery of what really happened to those girls, and why they disappeared for three entire days (like Jesus!) before reappearing in a random farmhouse some 30 miles away. 

Of course, it’s not much of a mystery for us, because we know this movie is called “The Exorcist,” even if we’ve yet to discover that it will not, at any point, introduce an actual exorcist. “Believer” opts instead for a multi-faith coalition of amateurs that includes a useless local priest, a spiritualist played by “Madeline’s Madeline” performer Okwui Okpokwasili, and Katherine’s evangelical parents, whose shaken faith is replaced by the kind of divine confidence unique to upper-middle-class white Christians in a country that’s growing less secular by the day.

A tepid scene in which the newly possessed Katherine attends Sunday morning services neatly epitomizes this movie’s ability to whiff at even the easiest fastballs, but “Believer” is nevertheless at its best during the brief stretch when the girls’ parents are struggling to make sense of what’s happening to their daughters. Odom does a fine job of playing heartsick confusion; his face makes palpable the fear of not being able to understand or protect your children (whether they’re inhabited by Satan or simply going through puberty), and Green leverages that fear into the straightforward but effective sequence in which Victor realizes that the horror is coming from inside the house. 

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“The Exorcist: Believer”

Alas, any hint of depth or texture goes out the window faster than Damien Karras once everyone agrees that Angela and Katherine are possessed, a diagnosis that doesn’t leave much room for skepticism — or eye-rolling dialogue scenes about how difficult it is for Victor to accept things outside of his belief system — after the girls start breaking out and smelling bad, two things that would never happen to 13-year-olds under any other circumstances. It doesn’t help that the devil is presented as little more than a Deadpool-level troll who thinks it’s funny that he knows he’s in an “Exorcist” movie. His signature move is just reminding people of their most haunting moral compromises, as if they don’t already think about them every day of their lives; as if Victor had totally forgotten about the time he watched his very pregnant wife get crushed to death in an earthquake until a demon had the nerve to remember it for him.

And so Victor does what any dad would do in that situation: He doorstops “The Exorcist” OG Ellen Burstyn at the beach house she apparently bought with her portion of that $400 million and begs for advice (that timeline checks out because most of Burstyn’s scenes howl with “huge reshoot energy,” none more so than the one in which she calmly monologues about our need to have faith in each other mere seconds after suffering a traumatic injury that conveniently sidelines her for the rest of the film). 

Burstyn’s appearance, pro forma in any modern legacy sequel, is low-key hilarious for the disconnect between the quavering seriousness of the actress’ voice and the “haven’t I seen this movie before?” energy of her character. Green tries to reconcile those conflicting vibes by estranging Chris MacNeil from the daughter she almost lost in the original movie (which becomes yet another opportunity to shame Victor for the sin he committed during the prologue), but not even the combined strength of Heaven and Hell would be powerful enough to save “Believer” from completely deflating once it reaches into the past. 

All that’s left at that point is the exorcism itself, which is shot with all the tension of a Sunday morning sermon as it builds to a moral dilemma that once again forces the movie’s parents to make a life-or-death decision about their kids, as if testing Victor to see whether he’s learned not to intervene with God’s plan. “Have faith,” Chris tells him (and us). By the time “The Exorcist: Believer” arrives at its fittingly half-assed whimper of a final scene, it’s become almost impossible to make the case that having bad faith is better than simply abandoning it altogether. 

Grade: D

Universal Pictures will release “The Exorcist: Believer” in theaters on Friday, October 6.

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