1973: “There Is Only One”
For context, I was all of seven years old (!) when I first saw the late William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” theatrically in early 1974, and yes, I was waaaay too young, but it’s okay, because I was raised by wolves. Even as a young monster movie fan at the time, “The Exorcist” was different; it was to the average horror film what a rocket-powered sports car would be to a pair of rusty roller-skates. “The Exorcist” had a profound effect on me, giving my younger self nightmares for months (hell, years) afterward. To this day, I’ve never been quite so frightened yet curiously fascinated by a film in my life. I’ve been trying to fully understand the movie’s power over me for five decades, as “The Exorcist” celebrates its 50th anniversary this December.
What made that movie work so well was its combination of documentary-realism with no-bulls#!t performances (the cast included actual priests and lab technicians) that gradually and subtly build to a horrific Grand Guinol finale. The film trades lavish horror stylings for absolute authenticity—a bargain too many horror films regrettably eschew. “The Exorcist” was followed by many sequels; the laughably bad “Exorcist 2: The Heretic” (1977), the surprisingly effective “Exorcist III” (1990), two different versions of the 1940s-era prequel “Exorcist: The Beginning” (2004/2005), a decent but short-lived Fox TV series (2016-2018), and now “The Exorcist: Believer” (2023), which sees two young girls possessed in present-day suburban Georgia (the Devil truly “Went Down to Georgia,” after all…).
Given the original’s 50th anniversary, I decided to see “The Exorcist: Believer” in a movie theater—which marks the 4th time I’ve gone to a movie theater over the last 44 months. Personally, I prefer streaming at home with my digital projector, which is every bit as immersive under the right conditions. All the same, I still opted to see “Believer” theatrically since “The Exorcist” is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it seemed only fair to give this latest sequel a fair chance for this review.
To quote the first film’s Father Merrin, “I believe we should begin at once.”
“The Exorcist: Believer” (2023)
Directed and cowritten by David Gordon Green, the screenplay was cowritten from a story by Green, Scott Teems and Danny McBride, who also worked on Green’s “Halloween” reboot movies.
The movie opens in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010. Photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his very pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracy Graves) are doing a photo shoot of the city. The two meet in a church after Sorenne partakes in a local Haitian blessing ceremony for their unborn baby. As Victor goes outside to take more photos, the monstrous 2010 Haiti earthquake devastates the island nation. After his wife is pinned under rubble, rescuers are able to free her, but a painful choice has to be made; save Sorenne, or save their unborn baby…
Note: Like the original film, we see the movie’s protagonist pursuing their vocation in a foreign country, like Father Merrin on his archeological dig for holy relics in Iraq. In this case, I appreciated how the real-life Haiti earthquake of 2010 (a 7.0 on the Richter scale) was used as an integral part of the character’s backstory. We see many of the same beats of the first film sprinkled throughout—such as two fighting dogs signifying something evil is coming, like the two battling dogs in Syria near the demon Pazuzu’s statue (yes, that was the demon’s name in Blatty’s book).
Thirteen years later, we see Victor paying the bills as a family studio portrait photographer (they still have those??), while raising his teenaged daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) as a single father in suburban Georgia. We follow them on a typical morning before school, as vegetarian Angela teases her old man by stealing a strip of his breakfast bacon. As he drops her off at school, Angela asks if she can go over to her friend’s house after school. Victor reluctantly agrees, but only if she agrees to be home by dinner.
Note: The ‘typical morning’ family scene is very similar to how we meet the MacNeils in Georgetown, Washington during the original film. The breakfast fight scene is also a nod to Chris MacNeil playfully chasing her daughter Regan through the house after Regan steals a forbidden treat (“You’ll be sorry!”). We later see Victor partaking in boxing practice at a local gym, just as Father Karras practiced boxing in the original movie. For those old-fart fans like me who are counting such references? Buckle up, because there are many original movie callbacks—sometimes distractingly so—sprinkled throughout this film.
Kids being kids, things naturally don’t go as planned. Angela and her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), who is from a Baptist household, sneak off into the local woods in order for a curious Angela to contact her mother via spiritual means. Neither of the girls return to their homes, and the police are contacted. Victor meets Katherine’s parents, mother Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and hot-headed father Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), as they pool their resources to find the girls. After various neighbors of faith try to persuade atheist Victor to seek spiritual help, the girls are found three days later hiding out in a barn, miles away. Other than burned feet and a mysterious loss of memory, the traumatized girls are examined at a hospital and found to be otherwise unharmed.
Note: The slow-burning first half of the movie is its best, and I only wish the movie’s final acts maintained this level of plausibility, restraint and suspense. I also appreciated how the girls performing a summoning ritual in the woods mimics Regan’s ‘opening the door’ to evil by using an Ouija board in the original. However, one major nit I had at this point was with the false jump scares as Victor’s ‘helpful’ neighbors stealthily break into his house (!?) to light candles and perform other ‘healing’ nonsense during the girls’ absence, when they could’ve simply waited for Victor to come home. Maybe this is a Southern hospitality thing (?), but on the west coast, that’s called ‘breaking-and-entering.’
Attempting to settle back into their lives, the girls begin to exhibit strange behaviors. Angela violently attacks her dad before suffering a seizure. As she’s being welcomed back at church by her family’s pastor (Raphael Sbarge), Katherine also lashes out in a violent outburst, as she trashes a table of food for the parishioners in the church entranceway. Victor returns his daughter to the hospital’s psychiatric ward where’s she’s kept in isolation, while Miranda and Tony insist on further treatment of Katherine at home. As the girls’ physical appearances deteriorate, they also display uncanny psychic abilities, such as knowing intimate secrets of others’ pasts—like Victor’s next-door neighbor and hospital nurse, Paula (Ann Dowd), whom Angela cruelly taunts with knowledge of her failed attempt to join a convent, and of a past abortion.
Note: Just as the possessed-Regan seemed to read the minds of her visitors in the original movie, the two girls also share that psychic ability. The 2000 director’s cut of “The Exorcist” reinserted a critical deleted scene back into the film, where we see Karras and Merrin discussing the reasons for Regan’s possession during a break in the ritual. Merrin tells the younger priest that “the point is to make us despair…to see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the notion that God could love us.” That idea is very much in play in this sequel, as both Katherine and Angela practice such psychic warfare on anyone within earshot. It also reinforces the first movie’s belief that the demon’s target isn’t the person possessed, but rather those in the possessed person’s orbit.
Having taken some of possessed-Angela’s verbal venom at her hospital, neighbor/nurse Paula approaches Victor with an offer of help. She tells Victor about Angela’s uncanny insights into her past. Paula then gives Victor a copy of a book by former actress-turned-spiritual advisor Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) wherein MacNeil chronicles her own daughter Regan’s traumatic possession, and how it drove her to seek answers on the phenomenon from as many different faiths as she could gather. A reluctant but desperate Victor clicks onto an old video of MacNeil discussing her daughter’s possession, and realizes Regan’s symptoms were nearly identical to Angela’s. Victor then goes to MacNeil’s beachside home with a copy of her book in hand, and they talk about Angela, as well as Chris’ past dealings with the possession phenomenon. Chris also confesses that writing the detailed account of the event alienated her from Regan, who didn’t take too kindly about her mother going public with something so traumatic and private.
Note: This is where the movie began to diverge a bit for me. It’s interpretation of Chris’s post-“Exorcist” life seems at odds with what we saw of her at the end of the first movie, where she seemed determined to put the whole thing behind her, choosing to live as normal a life as possible. Instead, we’re now told that Chris became something of a spiritualist—forsaking her promising acting career in favor of studying possession through various cultural lenses. In its ham-fisted way, the movie is trying to make her new Father Merrin (something the Fox TV series of “The Exorcist” also attempted unsuccessfully). The formerly agnostic Chris is now some kind of ‘expert’ on possession even if, by her own admission, she wasn’t allowed to witness the actual event (which she half-jokingly blames on Catholic patriarchy). This side of Chris feels more like actress Ellen Burstyn’s own spiritual journey, where she’s admitted to studying different faiths, including Islam. This is one of those times where a character seems written more in line with an actor’s past rather than their character’s (see: “Star Trek: Picard” season 2).
Visiting Angela at the hospital, Chris is convinced that the girl is indeed possessed by the same entity that possessed her daughter nearly 50 years ago. After the hospital visit, Victor and Chris decide to check in on Katherine, who’s ill-advisedly staying at her parent’s house. After Victor makes the introductions, he stays with Tony and Miranda, both of whom share his grief and anguish over their daughters’ matching conditions. Meanwhile, a determined Chris goes upstairs to check in on Katherine by herself…
Note: Is this the same Chris MacNeil who should’ve remembered that the demon’s actions led to the deaths of both Father Merrin and Father Karras (two professionals) the night of her daughter’s exorcism? Why the hell is Chris going up to Katherine’s room alone? It makes no sense, other than to set up an event that’ll take Ellen Burstyn out of the movie’s action—which is considerate, since Ellen Burstyn is 90 years old at the time of this writing.
So Chris foolishly chooses to go upstairs and perform some kind of generic exorcism on her own. During the brief exchange with possessed-Katherine, the demon works on Chris by trying to convince her that Regan is dead, and by imitating the British accent of the late Burke Dennings; the director friend of Chris’s whom possessed-Regan pushed from her window to his death (after turning his head “completely around”). For her trouble, Chris is then stabbed in the eyes with a crucifix wielded by possessed-Katherine. Paramedics quickly arrive to take both a profusely-bleeding Chris and a straightjacketed Katherine away for immediate hospitalization. So much for Tony and Miranda’s ‘home-schooling’ approach…
Note: The eye-stabbing, as well as an earlier scene of a hospitalized Angela lying in a pool of her own menstrual blood, are meant to deliver the shame shock value as Regan’s horrific masturbatory stabbing with the crucifix from the first movie, but “Exorcist: Believer” is shot in such dark, murky cinematography (a Blumhouse trademark) that the action simply isn’t as clear (or shocking) as it might’ve been using the almost-documentary style of the original. The late cinematographer Owen Roizman‘s (1933-2023) extraordinary work in the original movie easily outstrips anything we see in this sequel—which benefits from 50 years of moviemaking technology advances. What a shame.
With nothing left to lose, Victor, Katherine’s parents, Paula and spiritualist-friend/ally Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili) seek to enlist a local Catholic priest, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla) into their cause, but Maddox says the local diocese refuses to give permission for him to perform the Roman Ritual—insisting that the girls are suffering from psychiatric issues. With Chris hospitalized, this leaves Victor, Tony, Miranda, Paula (the only Catholic of the bunch), Dr. Beehibe, the local pastor we saw earlier and Pentecostal faith healer Stuart (Danny McCarthy) to their own devices. This group then attempts a half-assed, multi-faith version of an exorcism in Victor’s home, with the girls strapped into chairs bolted onto the floor by Victor himself. The exorcism itself is a disaster. The demon taunts Victor by suggesting he wanted to kill unborn Angela in order to save his wife back in Haiti (not entirely untrue). The demon also sets the parents against each other by telling them that one child will have to die in order to save the other. Acting against orders, the previously sidelined Father Maddox returns, only to have his neck broken when the demon telekinetically turns his head “completely around.”
As Dr. Beehibe wafts magical smoke, Victor attempts to reinforce Angela’s bond to her late mother by wrapping her in Sorenne’s scarf. At that moment, a panicked Tony offers up Angela in order to save his own daughter, Katherine. The demon of course, double-crosses them and both girls flatline. Angela eventually recovers, but Katherine is dead. As police and paramedics arrive, the ritual is over. The demon flees Angela, but at a heavy price.
Note: The exorcism itself is the weakest part of the entire film. For starters, it’s too damn dark; how am I supposed to be scared when I can’t even see half of what’s going on? And this rag-tag team of wannabe exorcists performing a messy collection of rituals only reinforces the modern day Dunning-Kruger effect we see everywhere, as average people with only passing familiarity on a subject declare themselves “experts” (like a former reality TV show host running for president). The ritual in the movie lacks the unwavering conviction and expertise of the original movie’s Father Merrin played by the late great Max von Sydow, (1929-2020). Although his heart failed in the attempt, Merrin’s death spurred his shakier partner Father Karras into summoning his own faith and successfully completing the ritual in his own way, at the cost of his own life. As it is, the exorcism of this movie feels like a group of friends trying to perform brain surgery based on a FaceBook video they all shared. Not to mention the overwrought musical cues (credited to David Wingo and Amman Abbasi) telling the audience how to feel at every step are wholly unnecessary; it would’ve been far scarier if David Gordon Green had stuck to the more austere approach of the original.
A montage following the ritual’s aftermath sees Victor visiting his late wife’s grave, as Miranda and Tony attend Katherine’s funeral, along with their other kids. We also see a fully-recovered Angela attending school once again. The final scene of the movie takes place in the blinded Chris MacNeil’s hospital room, as she receives an unexpected visit from her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), who forgives her mother and seeks to make peace.
Cue Mike Oldfield’s classic “Tubular Bells”…
Note: The final cameo from Linda Blair was a mild surprise, but not totally unexpected given director David Gordon Green’s knack for recruiting original franchise stars. However, the reunion is so brief that it ends up feeling hollow; something done for completist’s sake, a box to be checked off, and not for the movie itself. For disclosure, I’ve seen and met Linda Blair at several conventions over the years (most recently a few weeks ago at “CreepIE Aftermath” in the Inland Empire), and she has said (on multiple occasions) that she’s retired from acting to devote herself exclusively to her animal rescue charity (LindaBlairWorldHeart.org). I’m guessing her salary for her seconds-long cameo in the movie probably included a generous donation to her cause from the producers.
Summing It Up
“The Exorcist: Believer” is produced by Blumhouse Productions (the big horror production company today) and directed by cowriter David Gordon Green, who did the same for the recent “Halloween” reboot trilogy (2018’s “Halloween,”2021’s “Halloween Kills,” 2022’s “Halloween Ends”), all of which I had decidedly mixed feelings about, to put it charitably. Unfortunately, many of the rebooted “Halloween” trilogy’s worst traits also find their way into “Believer” as well; murky cinematography, cheap jump-scares, a grande dame of horror cinema ill-advisedly returning to an iconic role, and too many characters diluting the intensity of the final act.
While I admire the restraint of the movie’s first 45 minutes or so, the final act really pours it on—distracting music, CGI smoke effects and other flashy gimmicks, all of which make an audience painfully aware they’re watching a movie with actors, with none of the original film’s painstakingly gritty authenticity. Even the one-line return of Linda Blair in the movie’s final seconds feels about as sincere as someone forced to sing “Happy Birthday” to their boss.
Perhaps the biggest issue I had with the film is the actual exorcism itself, which takes no advantage of having two possessed girls. One girl could’ve been spider-walking on the ceiling while the other was verbally distracting the exorcist(s). Instead, both girls stay more or less bound to their chairs, preferring to tease and taunt their Amateur Hour exorcists (Dunning-Kruger effect in full swing). The final exorcism lacks the gravity and authority given by the late Max von Sydow’s “Father Merrin” in the original. When Merrin entered the MacNeil home, you got the distinct sense the demon feared his arrival. I can’t imagine imagine any demon worth their sulfur being afraid of the clown car full of amateurs performing their various interfaith rituals for this movie.
After the careful buildup in the first hour (aided greatly by Leslie Odom Jr’s sensational performance) the exorcism itself feels like a joke. Imagine if Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” was awaiting rescue from the Skipper and Gilligan. Even the pastor (Raphael Sbarge) in the movie feels like one of those empty televangelist frauds who fleece money from their poor parishioners to finance their private jets. The weight inferred by the borrowed “Exorcist” title simply isn’t there. I can only imagine the infamously frank William Friedkin’s opinion of this film had he’d lived to see it. Sadly, Friedkin passed away on August 7th of this year at age 87.
If I can give any pluses to this movie, it’s in the performances by Leslie Odom Jr, Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill. Ellen Burstyn gives the movie some air of legitimacy by her presence alone, though I find her character of Chris MacNeil acting somewhat out of character. By the end of the first movie, Chris MacNeil seemed to be jumping right back into her life as an actress; even trying to return a St. Christoper’s medal found in Regan’s room after the exorcism. Oh well. At least they didn’t turn the 90-year old Chris into a gun-toting Sarah Connor clone (à la Jamie Lee Curtis’ ‘Laurie Strode’ in the “Halloween” reboots). Linda Blair’s cameo as “Regan” in the film’s final seconds is an afterthought. Overall, the movie’s heavy acting chores fall primarily on Odom and his two young costars, who each do an admirable job.
There are many callbacks to the original sprinkled throughout as Easter Eggs. The two fighting dogs in the Haiti opening recalls the two fighting dogs in the original’s Iraqi prologue sequence. Possessed-Katherine does an impression of the first movie’s English-accented ‘Burke Dennings’ (“Do you know what she did?”). There’s even shots of Victor practicing boxing at the local gym, just like Damien Karras. These sometimes obtrusive callbacks siphon away opportunities to try new things. 1990’s “Exorcist III” (aka “Legion”), easily the best of the “Exorcist” sequels, cleverly used possession to tell a body-jumping serial-killer story—a supernatural precursor to 1991’s “Silence of the Lambs.” “Exorcist III” is the most artistically successful of the sequels as it genuinely attempts something new and different (despite a tacked-on exorcism mandated at the zero hour by producers—which still manages to work, in spite of itself).
Perhaps “The Exorcist: Believer” might’ve been more creatively successful without the connection to the original movie, just as “Halloween Ends” budding serial killer story would’ve been better off without Michael Myers’ needless tutelage. Standing in the shadow of the late William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece, just about any sequel idea is going to come up short. Joining other middling entries in this 50-year franchise, “The Exorcist: Believer” will not make many new converts, I’m afraid.
Where To Watch
“The Exorcist: Believer” is currently in theatrical release only, but if it follows the example of David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” BlumHouse movies for Universal, I’m guessing it might be on NBC/Universal’s Peacock streaming service in a few months or so (that’s purely a guess on my part, of course).