By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Fifty years after its release, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains one of the scariest and most profoundly affecting horror films of all time. Possession films have been a dime a dozen since, most of which barely scratch the surface of the craft and terror intrinsic to Friedkin’s horror classic. The subsequent films in The Exorcist franchise itself are among these inferior attempts at replication (with the exception of the excellent and truly terrifying The Exorcist III). Now, following Universal Studios’ whopping $400 million purchase of The Exorcist franchise rights, Blumhouse have collaborated once again with David Gordon Green, who most recently helmed the latest Halloween trilogy, to breathe new life into The Exorcist franchise.
This new life comes in the shape of The Exorcist: Believer, the first of a planned trilogy from Blumhouse Productions and director and co-writer David Gordon Green. The Exorcist: Believer follows Victor Fielding (played by Hamilton and Glass Onion’s Leslie Odom Jr.), a widowed father raising his daughter Angela (played by Lidya Jewett). Fielding’s world is turned upside down when his daughter and her friend Katherine (played by Olivia Marcum) go missing, only to return several days later possessed by an evil presence.
There’s a lot riding on The Exorcist: Believer. Jason Blum commented that it is “the riskiest movie” he’s made given the relatively high budget. But significant weight also comes with a film bearing The Exorcist title. Many to this day consider the original 1973 to still be the scariest film ever made. At a time when horror was more marginalized than it is now, The Exorcist became the first horror film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and writer William Peter Blatty went onto win Best Adapted Screenplay for his adaptation of his novel. In this sense, despite the failings of subsequent installments, there’s a prestige and, in turn, a high standard that is assumed with David Gordon Green’s new film. But does The Exorcist: Believer succeed? As a companion to the original The Exorcist, definitely not. But as a well-crafted and genuinely scary possession film, absolutely.
The Exorcist: Believer excels with a tense and unnerving first half before losing steam midway through. After a choppily edited and clearly cut down prologue sequence in Haiti, the film shifts gears to Percy, Georgia and hones in on Odom Jr.’s Fielding character and his daughter Angela. When Angela and her friend go missing, The Exorcist: Believer begins to feel a bit like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners with parents desperately searching for their lost children. In depriving the audience of seeing what actually happened to the girls when they went missing in the woods until far later in the movie, director Green creates an ominous sense of mystery in the film’s first act. It’s not anything particularly novel, but nonetheless is intense and gripping.
When the girls are found and returned to their parents, things go from mysterious and ominous to scary and unnerving. Similar to what Green did in Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills, he isn’t reinviting the genre in any way here. But he brings a level of craft that makes the film admirable and never boring. Jewett and Marcum as the two possessed children, meanwhile are terrific in conveying a dark transformation as they sell both the initial innocence of the girls and their stark depravity following possession.
Coupling the scares elicited from the two young actresses’ performances is a palpable edge-of-your-seat terror that comes from sudden startles spread out across the film. During production, rumors circulated that The Exorcist: Believer was turning out to disappoint in regards to its scares, which apparently led to retooling the make the film scarier. This injection of scares is evident across the film with an array of sudden loud noises and strong visuals. These aren’t the carefully crafted, slowly built up scares of James Wan’s films. Rather, these jump scares often come out of nowhere, which makes for an unnerving viewing experience as one never knows when a sudden startle is around the corner. Some may critique this approach as a cheap way for a horror film to earn scares, and there’s definitely some validity in that argument. Nonetheless, The Exorcist: Believer becomes an intentionally unnerving viewing experience due to this approach to scares.
The scares ramp up exponentially in the final act, but that’s not before the film is nearly derailed by an uninspired and misguided attempt to connect to the 1973 original. Midway through the film, Fielding seeks out Chris MacNeil, the mother of the possessed Regan in The Exorcist. Ellen Burstyn returns to play the character, whose return as the film’s supernatural expert comes across as more silly than effective. Tired references to Regan and the events of the original film are sprinkled throughout after the midway point, all of which add nothing to the story. Green excelled with his approach to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in Halloween (2018), but unfortunately has no such luck in reintroducing legacy characters from The Exorcist.
Fortunately, the film finds its footing again with a genuinely terrifying final act. The interruptions caused by misguided attempts to connect to the original The Exorcist have ceased at this point, while, like its predecessor, Believer ends with a dramatic exorcism sequence. The performances of Jewett and Marcum as the two possessed children truly shine here, as does excellent sound design and voice work that will make your spine tingle. It doesn’t reach the heights of Regan’s exorcism in The Exorcist, but nonetheless is sure to frighten audiences.
Thematically, it must also be said that The Exorcist: Believer has shortcomings. With Jason Miller’s Father Karras, The Exorcist featured one of the most captivating character arcs in horror film history. Through Karras, The Exorcist had a lot to say about doubt and questioning of one’s faith, making his journey have remarkable emotional resonance. No such emotional depth, however, is found in The Exorcist: Believer. It may be a harsh criticism to lodge at the film by comparing it to one of the greatest horror films of all time and yet it must be recognized that the filmmakers welcome this comparison in being brave to make a sequel in the first place.
The Exorcist: Believer marks Blumhouse and David Gordon Green’s daring attempt to make a sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time. As a possession-based horror film, Believer excels with a host of disturbing imagery, dual shocking performances from Lidya Jewett and Olivia Marcum, and some genuinely effective scares throughout. Unfortunately, the film stumbles with uninspired connections to the original The Exorcist, while failing to reach the thematic depths of the 1973 classic. What results is a film that is compelling and scary, but is far off from earning the title of The Exorcist.