The Exorcist: Believer is sacrilegious to the original

David Gordon Green (2018’s Halloween) directs The Exorcist: Believer, a direct sequel to the 1973 classic about a 12-year-old girl who is possessed by a mysterious demonic entity. The first of a proposed trilogy, it will be hard to keep faith beyond this lacklustre entry writes David Michael Brown.

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is rightly heralded as an all-time genre classic. Not only did the disturbing tale of possession freak out early ‘70s audiences but the film was nominated for 10 Oscars—unheard of for the genre—and took home two including Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay for author William Peter Blatty. The film starred Linda Blair as Regan, the young girl who is possessed by the demon Pazuzu, Ellen Burstyn as her mother, and Max von Sydow as the exorciser of the title. Steeped in Catholic guilt and soaked in pea-green soup, The Exorcist was a huge box-office success and inevitably, sequels followed.

John Borman directed Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), an insane, delirious, non-sensical sequel that was lost in a swarm of locusts, choral Ennio Morricone chants and a hammy Richard Burton screaming at anything that moved. Blatty took over the reins for The Exorcist III (1990) and delivered a far more sombre affair that ditched the spinning heads and crucifix abuse for a serial killer called Gemini, a gruff George C. Scott and one of cinema’s greatest jump scares involving a corridor, some medical shears, and an unfortunate nurse. Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) had a troubled production history. The film started life as The Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004 but the prequel, originally shot by the Taxi Driver (1976) scribe at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, was deemed un-releasable by the studios, Schrader was out and Cliffhanger (1993) helmer Renny Harlin was hired to reshoot and retool the project. The resulting The Exorcist: The Beginning was a critical and box-office failure. Schrader’s version, released a year later, was received with little fanfare.

This brings us to The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green, the man who resurrected the Halloween franchise with his 2018 reboot that ignored all the sequels, only to dig it a new grave with the dreadful Halloween Ends (2022). He gives The Exorcist the same treatment with this unwanted sequel by presenting audiences with what he thinks they want with a succession of hackneyed callbacks to the original. From the teased strains of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells—albeit a ponderous version by composers David Wingo and Amman Abbasi—and “help me” raised in pleading flesh to spinning heads—this time an unfortunate cowardly priest—and expletives that should never be heard from a tween’s mouth, the film mistakes forced nostalgia for clever storytelling.

The opening moments do lend proceedings with a sense of foreboding. After a catastrophic Haitian earthquake 12 years prior where photographer Victor Fielding (Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr.) is forced to choose between his pregnant wife and unborn child, we find him in the present day raising their daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett) as a solo parent. But then Angela and her friend Katherine (newcomer Olivia Marcum who looks like Linda Blair when she is possessed), disappear into the woods for a DIY seance and return three days later with no recollection of what happened to them. Soon demons are appearing in mirrors, fingernails are being pulled off and the girls are prone to violent screaming outbursts in church.

Being a modern horror film, the possessed girls look suspiciously like the undead in Evil Dead Rise (2023) complete with rotting flesh, bloated visages, putrid breath and unearthly demonic eyes. In fact, the pressure to keep up with tropes is obvious. The Exorcist: Believer may fill the screen with contorted twisted bodies, black gelatinous vomit oozing from every orifice and eyes being gouged with a crucifix but it all seems pedestrian. Doubling down when he didn’t need to, the filmmaker tries too hard to sate audience’s blood lust and their inpatient need for a jump scare every minute.

Possessing two girls doesn’t increase the terror, it dilutes it and it becomes difficult to focus on the pontificating bible readings and cross-brandishing when the final exorcism throws in ritualistic healing, a Pentecostal preacher, a Baptist pastor and a next-door neighbour (Ann Dowd) who was a failed nun into the heady mix. The battle for Regan’s soul as Father Merrin (von Sydow) and his clerical sidekick Father Karras (Jason Miller) fought back the Catholic guilt that fuelled the religious fervour of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist script was far more dynamic in its simplicity.

Even the stunt-casting of Burstyn as Chris MacNeil who has now, inexplicably become a published expert on exorcism, can’t save proceedings. Her appearance is nothing but another desperate shout out to Friedkin’s ground-breaker. Sacrilegious to the original and apparently the first of a proposed trilogy, it will be hard to keep faith beyond this lacklustre entry. It almost makes you wish for Russell Crowe to jump back on his Vespa for a sequel to The Pope’s Exorcist (2023). Almost.