Fifty years ago, audiences lined up in droves to see The Exorcist before vomiting in the theater and fleeing outside to faint. Now, in the wake of the late sequel The Exorcist: Believer, that kind of crowd response is more likely to occur in reaction to Taylor Swift’s concert film next weekend.
In addition to bumping its release up a week early to stay ahead of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, Believer plays it safe by sticking to the crowd-pleasing “blockbuster horror” formula for which production company Blumhouse is known. To that end, it often comes across as Exorcist cosplay, but director / co-writer David Gordon Green pulls a few tricks from his sleeve to subvert expectations.
As Green did with his recent Halloween trilogy, he ignores the series’ previous films except for the original and picks up years after where it left off. Although Ellen Burstyn returns as Chris MacNeil, the heroine to her daughter Regan’s monster, Believer doesn’t revolve around her the way Green’s Halloween films center on Jamie Lee Curtis as final woman Laurie Strode.
This time around, we follow widowed father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr., the film’s MVP) as he deals with the aftermath of his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), returning from a three-day disappearance with her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill). As Victor trudges through the rain and the seedier streets of their Georgia suburbs in search of the girls, the film recalls the 2013 disappearance thriller Prisoners. In addition to its chilly, dread-drenched atmosphere, it’s especially similar in its exploration of real-world horrors. Just as Prisoners quickly reveals the pedophiles on the periphery of its Everytown, USA setting, Believer uncovers villainous vagabonds during the investigative part of the film.
When the girls turn up and are taken to the hospital, Green presents their rape test just like the doctors do — as an all-too-common procedure. The dialogue about it is almost drowned out amid all the other medical activity. But the invasiveness of the procedure eerily foreshadows other intrusive scenarios in development.
Both girls turn out to be victims of demonic possession. While Chris MacNeil sheepishly asks the jaded Father Karras about religious remedies in the original film, Victor finds his friends and neighbors imposing their beliefs upon him. While still searching for his daughter, he comes home to find a local root doctor (Okwui Okpokwasili) burning candles and chanting prayers in her bedroom. It’s a disturbing sight — more an act of trespassing than a blessing of protection. It’s here that the film takes the most daring detour from its predecessor, as it presents religion in a more predatory light. And in the end, those who seem like religious saviors end up being disturbingly weak in the fight between good and evil. As Katherine’s mother and father, respectively, Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz perfectly capture the prejudice, paranoia and rage bubbling inside too many Bible beaters.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t nearly as bold in its take on the demonic elements from the original. The Exorcist is so iconic, so deeply burned into our collective consciousness, that it’s impossible to make similar makeup and effects feel as arrestingly terrifying or like much more than a fun Spirit Halloween store imitation. This film doesn’t do anything terribly different with its demons, as the girls perform the expected routine of spitting up bile, scratching themselves and speaking in sinister tones. And the confrontations with the possessed girls don’t carry the same emotional weight as the original. Even sitting in the theater watching Burstyn face the same demon 50 years later, Believer feels more like a perfectly fine Hulu original horror film than an instant classic.
Dismiss the aforementioned criticism as snobby if you want, but what makes The Exorcist so special is the sense of real-life weight it brings to an otherworldly ordeal. Losing a child is one of the most devastating nightmares anyone can face. And that’s the real fear at the heart of the original film — not the notion of profane, pea soup-spewing demons. Believer taps into that fear but ultimately feels like it’s holding back. Then again, Green’s first swing with Halloween (2018) also felt restrained, but he swung for the fences and hit two out of the park with Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends.
The Exorcist: Believer is the first entry in a planned trilogy, and for what it is, it’s a decent night at the movies that will put you in the spooky-season mood and send some shivers of real-world terror down your spine. It certainly ends on a bolder, darker note than you’d expect. Here’s hoping the subsequent chapters dig deeper and send us out into the night with feelings we can’t so easily shake off when we stream and chill at home.