THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER
Directed by David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green is either the bravest person in horror or the dumbest. Fresh from having revived the Halloween series to take it in unexpected new directions, he’s back with a reboot/sequel to arguably the greatest horror of all time: The Exorcist. What makes this one an even tougher sell is, unlike Halloween, it’s never been a beloved franchise. Sure, the third has its fanbase, but the other three vary from nonsensical (The Heretic) to wildly tedious (Dominion) – meaning for a lot of horror fans, it’s a one-and-done deal. Part of the problem with all its sequels, and to an extent all exorcism films more broadly, is William Friedkin perfected the template first time. True, you could argue this about Halloween to an extent. However, where slasher films can mix it up with a killer, their victims and their modus operandi, exorcism films aren’t known for their body count or baddies.
If you’ve seen more than one of these then you know it goes like this: a vulnerable person behaves weirdly, people wonder if it’s mental illness, a figure with a dark backing story has a crisis of faith, and then we get a battle of wits between them and a demon. Roll credits. The Exorcist: Believer does little to shake this formula up. Victor (Odom Jnr) is a super-protective single dad, having lost his wife in a horrific situation where it was her or their now-teenage daughter Angela (Jewett). So, when she vanishes into the woods with her bestie Katherine (O’Neill) it seems like his worst nightmare again. However, it’s only the start – when they’re found again, three days later, the girls have no memory of what happened, and there’s just something… Off about them. In a slight deviation from what we’d usually get in these films, we have not just one but two possessed kids, so Victor will need all the help he can get to save their souls. Among the people he turns to is author Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) – apparently, something similar happened to her daughter fifty years ago.
For the first half, I was semi-interested. The idea of some kids going to the woods to contact a supernatural entity and then going missing is an interesting, if tropey, hook. And while it’s fairly obvious what’s happened (the clue is in the title), I liked the air of mystery Green builds up – you almost wish it were for a different film. The locations are superb, mixing the safety of the suburbs with hints of rural Gothic. Moreover, as with how the thought of a loved one deteriorating in the original was spooky, a loved one unexpectedly changing is too. The make-up isn’t bad either, and we get some nice visual references to the original – brief glimpses of faces during dialogue scenes, shared audio cues and even a nice bit with some bacon. The second half brings together a fellowship of people from different faiths too, dropping the usual focus of Catholicism. Here, it’s all about strength through the community rather than institutions – a culturally divided America coming together. Things like the framing, the use of shadows and the tasteful use of a familiar piano motif also mean it works on a technical level. Still, it can only do so much to disguise that Exorcist: Believer is really, really boring.
Like other films in this subgenre, the audience is always ahead of the action. For much of the section half, they’ll be waiting for the big showdown with the demon while everyone wonders what’s wrong. This means the character work must be solid, but in this case, it isn’t. It’s not that Leslie Odom Jr does a bad job – on the contrary, he’s good, and we can buy the love he has for his kid. The problem is that’s pretty much all he has to work with for most of the movie’s running time. Likewise, both young actors do excellent physical performances (though voices are sometimes unintentionally funny), but they do not feel very rounded or even distinct from each other – making the double possession unrewarding. The supporting cast, comprising his coalition of the willing, is annoyingly nice too – being there to act out the goodness of their hearts to save the two girls from the largely motivation-free force possessing them. We learn little about their faiths, with the film only superficially engaging with their traditions, meaning they feel like plot devices rather than people. Then there’s the return of Chris: an anticlimax that feels like a casting gimmick. I was glad to see the film built upon Burstyn’s real life, and it’s good that we see her trying to turn the lasting trauma into something positive. Yet, without going into specifics, it seems like she didn’t learn much from the first film’s events, and her appearance is little more than a glorified cameo.
I usually wouldn’t reference anything from the third act in a review, but it’s an exorcism film, so we know there’ll be the inevitable scene where items fly around the room, a kid talks in tongues and biblical verses get repeated over and over again. Look, most of these finales are the same, and aside from the metaphysical battle being a two-for-one deal, there’s little here that will surprise the audience beyond how dull it is. There was even a bit where the demon unexpectedly fought back, and I swore to myself because it meant the film would go on for even longer. And it’s not even a long film! But it’s hard to pinpoint where the two hour running time goes, considering we learn so little about anyone in it. Friedkin knew that the best horror often functions as an extension of the film’s drama: a protagonist’s fears, anxieties and traumas are manifested in a monster. To an extent, Green tries to do this as well – the themes of guilt, spirituality and unthinkable dilemmas are laced through the film from the start. However, the lack of character depth means that they pass without much in the way of conflict for viewers. For instance, what should be a neat little reveal in the third act passes with little in the way of emotional impact. Still, a five-second sequence towards the end made me feel warm inside – you’ll know it when you see it.
On balance, this is maybe the third best in the series, after the original (obviously) and the third, though this is hardly a glowing recommendation. Apparently, it’s the first in a new trilogy – with Green as a maybe for fronting the others. I don’t know if we’ll ever see them. It’ll easily make its 30-million-dollar budget back, so in theory, it’s a no-brainer. But I can’t see it having the credibility or cultural impact of even the Halloween reboot trilogy – at least people enjoyed it as a franchise already (albeit a somewhat patchy one). Whereas The Exorcist is a prestige film that frankly deserves better than this. I don’t want to sound like I think the idea is doomed: there are other good films in this subgenre. For instance, The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Old Ways, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Wailing, Rec 2 and The Conjuring 2 all work in a way The Exorcist: Believer imitation doesn’t. Instead, it’s an unimaginative imitation that’ll neither please original fans nor convert people who haven’t been sold on it before. On that point, Friedkin’s masterpiece just turned fifty years old, and we have the new final cut available – if it’s been a while, rekindle yourself with it instead.