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'The Exorcist: Believer' won't make any converts

William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” turns 50 this year but instead of letting this classic rest on its laurels, Universal (who just bought the rights) launches a new horror trilogy with "The Exorcist: Believer," to extend the franchise and tarnish the legacy.

But you could say the franchise was already tarnished or maybe just cursed. The original film was both a box office hit and critical success, even winning a couple of Oscars. But the three sequels, a 2016 series, and then the problem-plagued prequels were all essentially flops.

'The Exorcist' legacy


Friedkin’s film may live in infamy for its head-spinning, pea soup-puking, foul-mouthed, crucifix-abusing possessed little girl that sent viewers in 1973 running for the exits. But the reason the film works so well and remains a favorite to return to is not because of the gross-out moments that have now become tired tropes but rather because the film created characters and a story that genuinely compelled us — with or without the power of Christ.

THE EXORCIST Official Trailer [1973]

Any film can use a possession/exorcism as the catalyst for a horror film, and far too many have. But the reason “The Exorcist” hooked me was because of Jason Miller’s richly nuanced Father Karras. His crisis of faith is what made the possession of an innocent child resonate so effectively beyond the special effect gags. Other films have raised the science versus supernatural question, but to place that doubt in a priest gave it a new intensity, because we cared about Father Karras. Plus Ellen Burstyn’s character, Chris MacNeil, provided the emotional hook of a mother not knowing how to help her daughter.


The Exorcist: Believer | Official Trailer

Extending the franchise

Now comes “The Exorcist: Believer,” the first film in a planned trilogy. Universal reportedly paid $400 million for the rights to the franchise in 2021, and it is now banking on “Believer” to generate enough box office interest to pave the way for two more sequels. To spearhead the movie they chose the team that ran the “Halloween” franchise into the ground with the unwatchable “Halloween Kills” and “Halloween Ends.”


David Gordon Green, who helmed the recent “Halloween” trilogy and now directs “Believer,” seems a nice enough guy. I sort of felt bad signing up to do a press day with him when I really just wanted to ask, "What the heck were you thinking when you made those 'Halloween' films?"

I loved his debut film the indie delight “George Washington,” and I enjoyed the ridiculous fun of his “Pineapple Express.” But he really needs to keep his hands off of horror franchises (he is also attached to a new version of “Hellraiser”).

Director David Gordon Green at his virtual press day interview. Sept. 29, 2023
Director David Gordon Green at his virtual press day interview. Sept. 29, 2023

David Gordon Green on why he took on the Devil

I got to interview Green, who recalled watching “The Exorcist” on VHS in a public library when he was 15 years old.

I have to confess, I was surprised that the studio would put him out there and commit to doing so much advance press for a film that someone must have realized was not good. Not to mention that there was a the lack of enthusiasm for the project.

So I began by asking, what possessed him to want to make an “Exorcist” film?

“One of the things people ask me is, was it daunting to take this movie that every movie lover around the world knows, right? And you're going to be the steward of a sequel to it. ‘How dare you?’” Green said. “And for me, it's a huge opportunity. It's the idea of being able to make something that has that reach, has the capacity to reach millions of viewers, get their attention, and make something that's meaningful to me. So if I've done my job right, I've made a very intimate personal drama within an epic, internationally known horror franchise.”

Not sure exactly where that intimate personal drama lurks in “Believer.” We get a little intimacy in the horror that a parent might feel when a child goes missing, and in the backstory of a neighbor who wanted to be a nun. But not enough to have a real impact.

Green is a decent enough filmmaker. He can craft a good-looking visual style and get solid performances from his cast. But the script is the main culprit here for bringing the film down.

Green and Peter Sattler are credited for the script with Danny McBride getting co-credit for screen story with Scott Teems. That many writers is usually a good harbinger of doom. Maybe it is not fair to blame McBride for the script being so weak, but the comedian has had his hand in all three of the recent “Halloween” fiascos, and now this. So maybe he is just an easy target. Not even sure how he managed to inveigle his way into the horror genre. Maybe he used Jordan Peele’s ability to move from comedy to horror as proof of concept, but he lacks Peele’s talent for understanding how to use the beats of comedy to enhance a horror formula. Plus, as a white dude, McBride also lacks Peele’s understanding of how it feels to be othered, which is often key in horror. And Peele is also just more talented.

Ellen Burstyn and Leslie Odom, Jr. star in "The Exorcist: Believer."
Ellen Burstyn and Leslie Odom, Jr. star in "The Exorcist: Believer."

“Believer” tries to make us care about the characters with an extended (that’s being generous, it really feels more like padded) opening. So about a third of the film is devoted to Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.), starting with a backstory showing his idyllic marriage but then his pregnant wife is tragically injured in Haiti, and he has to choose whether his wife or his unborn child will live. Jump to present day and he is now an overprotective dad to a teenage girl. But the one day he lets his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) go off with a friend, she disappears. The two girls are found three days later but have brought something evil back with them. After much resistance to the idea, the parents of both children come around to the possibility that the girls are possessed and in need of an exorcism. But WE already knew that.

The power of possession films

Green said that exorcism/possession stories are “a great way to illustrate negativity that we feel in our daily lives. And we can point to something specific — a demon — and we can take our fears and our anxieties, and we can try to defeat that with some ritual, some ceremony. It's a good way to tell a story of things that I think in the real everyday world, we see every day, from mental illness and addiction and abuse. So many things that I think can conflict us and our loved ones, people that we know. And when something is unexplainable, it's nice to have a movie that can express those dramas and those horrors.”

That sounds good but that is not really the story we get.

New victims for possession in "The Exorcist: Believer."
New victims for possession in "The Exorcist: Believer."

Ellen Burstyn returns after 50 years

Unlike the original “Exorcist” film, “Believer” cannot surprise us with what’s to come. We know we are here to see an innocent victim possessed and a battle of good and evil to be fought. Since that plot turn is no surprise, delaying it does not really make for an engrossing film, especially when the only reason any of us are watching is to see Ellen Burstyn, at 90, reprise her role of Chris MacNeil.

Green even admitted that having Burstyn return to the franchise for the first time since the original film was a “powerhouse opportunity … and to be able to not just convince her that she should be in our movie, but to become a collaborator of hers and to be inspired by her. And so when she showed up, nobody knew what to expect and what's this going to be like. And little did anyone know how playful she was going to be. For her to get in the ring and be very playful and bring the fun as well. It's been fun to collaborate with her and then to call her a friend.”

So if that was the case, then why not give her a bigger or at least better role. I think I would have liked the film better if it opened with Victor showing up on Chris’ doorstep and saying, “I read your book, can you help me?”

MacNeil’s story is actually the one I wanted to see rather than Victor’s attempts to be the perfect dad. Maybe the 90-year-old actress was not up to taking on a lead role, but the script could have put her to better use. We get tidbits of info about how she wrote a book about her ordeal and explored all kinds of ideas about possession and exorcism in various cultures and pushed her daughter Regan into hiding. But as Green did with Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie character in “Halloween,” he sidelines his greatest asset to pursue a different storyline.

Green says he won Burstyn over when “she saw my intentions of making something that was more of a theological thriller than a contemporary horror movie.”

And sure, a theological thriller sounds interesting. Exploring how different cultures or religions look to the idea of possession or create rituals for exorcism could provide for some clever plot turns. But “Believer” is not sure of what it believes in.

A question of faith

The original “The Exorcist,” which was based on a book by the Catholic William Peter Blatty, focused all attention on a pair of priests as the ones being able to exorcise the demon. The priests might have been flawed but there was no doubt they were good men trying to save an innocent soul, and their struggle to achieve that engaged us, even if we might be atheists.

But in 1973, the Catholic Church was not under the scrutiny that it is today for the sexual abuse committed by its clergy. So a new film coming out in 2023 is unlikely to place its faith in the church or priests. Every time “Believer” takes us to a Catholic church setting there is music that sounds almost like comic punctuation, and the Catholic priest we get is a whimpering coward who can’t provide any help. And while I am not opposed to a film making fun of or being critical of the Catholic church, this particular approach seems ill-conceived for a film titled “The Exorcist: Believer.” It’s hard to claim residence in “The Exorcist” franchise by dismissing so much of Catholic mythology and beliefs so if that is the approach you want then you need to have something equally strong to replace it. "Believer" does not come up with anything convincing.

Green reveals a glimmer of a good idea in having Ann, a character played by the wonderful Ann Dowd, being the stand in for the priest. Her character wanted to be a nun but circumstances did not allow her to be. She could have been the Father Karras here, a person of flawed faith but deep humanity, and a person whose very flaws could be seized upon by the demon. But “Believer” opts for an approach of "it takes a village" to exorcise a demon. So science and religion are both dismissed in order for everyone to just pull together to face evil together.

“Believer” ultimately treads very familiar horror terrain regarding possession and exorcism. But it is never willing to shock the audience the way Friedkin did in the much braver 1970s or engage the audience with stronger dramatic elements as the 1973 film did. Fifty years after "The Exorcist" premiered and Green is unable to improve on the original or to create something bold and fresh. I really wish he would go back to making indie dramas and walk away from these big studio franchise films.

A possession film done right...

I hope “Believer” tanks to the point that Universal rethinks making the rest of its planned trilogy. My advice, just go watch the original “The Exorcist” and savor how well crafted it was or seek out “When Evil Lurks,” the relentlessly bleak and brilliant Argentinian demonic possession film that Shudder is sneaking into theaters this weekend next to “The Exorcist: Believer.” I saw it over the weekend at Beyond Fest and it delivered in ways "Believer" cannot even imagine.

When Evil Lurks – Official Trailer | HD | IFC Films

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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