The Exorcist: Believer (2023) Review
Rebooting a franchise that was booted in the first place by what has been called one of the greatest horror movies ever committed to celluloid is a tall order. Friedkin’s and Blatty’s original (The Exorcist, 1973) set a standard impossible to meet, single-handedly spawning an entire subgenre and creating a set of tropes and styles that would be overused in later, lesser films to sadly grow into tedious clichés.
But in a vacuum, The Exorcist franchise really isn’t the worst out there based on its own merits, with Blatty’s Exorcist III (1990) and Paul Schrader’s ill-fated DTV-effort Dominion (2005) particularly holding up remarkably well. And yes, John Boorman’s Exorcist II (1977) and, to a mildly lesser extent, Renny Harlin’s The Beginning (2004), are films best left unwatched and forgotten. But name me a sizeable franchise that doesn’t have at least one or two of those clunkers?
So, when I came back after a lengthy stay in my beloved South East Asia, I was actually kind of anxious to watch The Exorcist: Believer and share my thoughts on it. The film opens on a splendid note with a nice salute to the original, with two fighting dogs in the sand, on a beach in Haiti in this case, photographed by what would turn out to be our main protagonist, Victor (Leslie Odom Jr., Glass Onion, Hamilton) while his very pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves, Sebastian, Super Turnt) is seeing the sights in Port-au-Prince.
Back in their hotel, a violent earthquake strikes the area, with Sorenne in her room as the building collapses around her under the tremors. Retrieved from the rubble but barely alive, the doctors in the local hospital tell Victor that he has to choose whose life is to be saved, his wife’s or his unborn child’s.
Fast-forward to the present day and Victor, now a widower, fathers his teenage daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett, Ivy + Bean, Nightbooks). But after she and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill, in her screen debut) disappear together in the nearby woods for a couple of days, they return changed and, as you would have guessed, possessed. From here on out, the rest of the movie pretty much unfolds as one would expect, with fruitless medical examinations, a reluctant priest, a church in denial and ultimately an aged Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, Requiem For A Dream, The Exorcist) called in for help and guidance.
Directed and co-written by David Gordon Green (Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills, Halloween Ends) and lensed by Michael Simmonds (Nerve, Halloween reboot en sequels), the cinematic value of The Exorcist: Believer is adequate. Aside from some erratic edits, everything looks and sounds fine. Tones are kept subdued and moody, and the film thankfully never goes overboard with excessive visuals. Effects work is also serviceable, mostly practical with CGI kept to a minimum – although I will never understand why CG blood splatter is drawn in rather than using stage blood squirt or a squib. The occasional visual reference to the idiom from the first film stays within the realm of homage and never really feels redundant or dissolving into cheap pastiche.
Lead Odom jr. delivers an organic portrayal of Victor, arching him through the ordeal of developing full-on skepticism into acceptance of evil as the flip side of the religious coin. The script pushes him dangerously close to the evangelical, but he manages to keep the proceedings grounded enough without getting too preachy, and he managed to keep me rooting for his character. The rest of the cast, while not really noteworthy, also delivers adequate performances.
But as the credits rolled, I felt an angry frustration coming over me. How awesome would it have been had they worked Haitian voodoo into the Pazuzu-lore? The syncretic nature of voodoo with its African lineage doesn’t really make that so far-fetched, right? The Exorcist: Believer gives us nothing more than a possessed line ‘we’ve met before’ to Chris MacNeil, that’s all we get as far as the Pazuzu tie-in. And oh, Chris MacNeil herself, who, despite Burstyn’s best efforts, doesn’t amount to anything and feels tacked on. And a pointless three-second cameo from Mrs. Linda Blair herself. So much for the narrative connection with Friedkin’s classic.
The film manages to conjure up a sense of dread in its second act, when the girls are possessed before that’s completely taken hold. But as the third act rolls in, the film closely follows the possession playbook for exorcism films without getting inventive with it. As a result, we’re left with a watchable, market-safe but ultimately forgettable horror film that never manages to really be scary, just occasionally unsettling at best.
In the Exorcist lineage, it ends up sitting somewhere between Exorcist III and The Beginning, but the fact that the filmmakers had a world of possibilities in their hands, yet opted to shun all of it and just play it safe, is befuddling. Here’s hoping they will mend some of that in the upcoming sequel, The Exorcist: Deceiver, which is planned for release in 2025.
The Exorcist: Believer is available on Digital Platforms. Universal will release it on Blu-ray and 4K on December 12th.