Fifty years ago, writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin changed the face of possession horror with the seminal feature The Exorcist, which inspired sequels and prequels that never quite reached the same box office highs of the original, along with a short-lived TV series. Director David Gordon Green and Blumhouse, fresh off the recent Halloween trilogy, reteam for a new chapter, The Exorcist: Believer, once again eschewing all canon beyond the original film. Introduced as the first in a new trilogy, Believer attempts to comment on religion in a modern world. However, its thinly sketched narrative and reliance on nostalgia works against it.
Thirteen years after losing his wife in a Haitian earthquake, Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) has raised his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) solo in a Georgia suburb. Angela’s quiet curiosity about her mother prompts an excursion into the woods with friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) one day after school, only they don’t return home in time for supper. When the girls reappear three days later with no memory of what happened, it sparks a series of events that will leave Victor revisiting past traumas and concepts of faith in a desperate bid to save his daughter.
Green, who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Sattler from a story by Scott Teems (Halloween Kills) & Danny McBride (Halloween trilogy) & Green, sets up an intriguing first act filled with jump scares and unsettling moments after the inciting disappearance. Green once again proves to be a quick study of form and technique, grafting his vision on familiar earmarks of Friedkin’s film. That’s perhaps most noticeable with the heavy use of subliminal demonic imagery or distorted faces. But The Exorcist: Believer quickly tosses aside the scare crafting to maximize the drama surrounding the familiar narrative check boxes of an Exorcist movie.
Believer doesn’t waste time trying to determine whether these girls are possessed, though they are subject to requisite uncomfortable medical tests. Nor does it waste time with characterization once the initial father/daughter bond is established. Instead, Green seems more intrigued by the modern world’s concept of faith and religion. It’s an innovative approach for a new chapter in theory, but the central theme isn’t enough to sustain a story when it struggles to instill any rooting interest or stakes.
With the scares and oppressive dread forgotten, The Exorcist: Believer prefers to dwell on the drama and conflict between warring beliefs and faith. Of the two possessed girls, only Angela is given an identity pre-possession. Well-intentioned neighbors Ann (Ann Dowd) and Stuart (Danny McCarthy) serve to move the plot forward and represent varying corners of religion. As do Katherine’s know-it-all Christian parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz). Only Odom, Jr. comes away unscathed as the unwaveringly patient, empathetic Victor, the sole character in the film, to feel like a fully formed person. That also applies to returning player Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), forced into the proceedings in such an inorganic way that feels as much like nostalgia bait as it does a means to support Green’s thesis.
This new chapter dangles concepts of modern belief systems without venturing further, as though Green lacks the conviction to follow through with the bold statements made. It’s not the power of Christ that compels this new demonic threat, but sacred family bonds. Well, maybe. Believer doesn’t bother establishing rules or giving the demonic threat any sort of presence to fear. By the time the exorcism arrives, it comes so haphazardly that it’s easy to ask, “That’s it?” when all is said and done.
The Exorcist: Believer feels like the antithesis to Green’s Halloween trilogy in many ways. Whereas Halloween Ends highlighted how violence and hate spread like a contagion in small towns, driving communities apart, Believer wants to impart how communities coming together, regardless of background, can offer salvation. How Green handles Chris MacNeil couldn’t be further removed from his Laurie Strode.
What made The Exorcist so scary and enduring wasn’t its concepts of faith or lack thereof but its authentic characters grappling with relatable issues as they venture further into the dark abyss of evil. Believer doesn’t spend enough time with any of its characters and instead rushes through all the requisite beats of an Exorcist movie right until it fizzles. Its bold, cynical commentary and occasionally effective imagery get lost in the shuffle. Believer is handsomely shot, at least, but mostly, it’s just unscary and soulless.
The Exorcist: Believer releases in theaters on October 6, 2023.
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