A pair of 13-year-old girls go missing in the woods and come back with a bad case of demonic possession in The Exorcist: Believer, the sixth official feature film in The Exorcist franchise that opens in Prague cinemas this weekend. Despite an engaging first half and some interesting thematic material, this one will fail to scare up much of a reaction from audiences who have seen the events of the film play out countless times before.
Director David Gordon Green was an unusual choice to helm the recent Halloween trilogy, but his knack for offbeat observation and willingness to take formulaic material to unexpected places breathed some new life in a franchise that had long become stale. Like that effort, The Exorcist: Believer is purportedly the first entry in a new trilogy, and serves as a direct sequel to the previous films while ignoring the events of most of them apart from the first.
Green’s perceptive eye for his characters pays off in early scenes of The Exorcist: Believer featuring young Angela (Lidya Jewett), whose mother died in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and her single father Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.), who was faced with the Sophie’s Choice decision of whether to save his wife or then-unborn daughter.
In one beautifully-captured moment, Angela hides behind her bedroom door in efforts to scare her dad, who turns the tables and sneaks up behind her. Any other horror movie would set this up as a routine jump scare, but Green, aided by some careful set design, holds on a single long shot and captures the sense of joy that Victor takes in delivering a playful fright.
Angela yearns to communicate with her mother, and turns to her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), who comes from a Catholic family, for some spiritual assistance. The two girls go out in the woods with mom’s scarf, and attempt a sort of seance in a drainage ditch, the obvious location two 13-year-olds in 2023 would attempt to communicate with a deceased loved one. And then they disappear.
The first 40 minutes or so of The Exorcist: Believer, which deal with the girls and their families and their mysterious disappearance, could have been the first 40 minutes of a much better movie, along the lines of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Jewett and O’Neill are both excellent in their roles, their characters subtly and memorably observed, and their sudden disappearance affecting.
But because this is an Exorcist movie, the girls come back possessed by a demon. It’s something that the characters in the movie are terrifyingly quick to self-diagnose. In The Pope’s Exorcist, Russell Crowe‘s comically over-the-top exorcist, who acknowledges the prevalence of mental illness in possession cases, was far more rational than any of the characters here.
The original Exorcist film went to great lengths, in its scariest scenes, detailing the lengths that non-believer Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) went to help her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) before finally turning to the church. In The Exorcist: Believer, it’s the other way around: even the Catholic Church backs off from this case, instead recommending the girls be institutionalized.
This film is filled with other nicely-observed characters, including Katherine’s religious parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), their clueless pastor (Raphael Sbarge), Victor’s friend (Danny McCarthy), and especially his neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd). By the end of the movie, they’ve tied up the two girls to chairs in the middle of a room, and attempt some kind of exorcism hackathon with a rogue priest and a non-specific mystic. Hey, whatever works.
If The Exorcist: Believer did not feature impressive makeup effects that transform the poor girls into ghouls, audiences could question the possession diagnoses, and the actions taken by the parents and other characters. That might make for an interesting film, the exact opposite of what the second half of this movie becomes.
In 2001, director Green made a splash with his first movie, George Washington, which carefully observed a group of diverse children in a small North Carolina town during a tumultuous summer.
“This is such a lovely film. You give yourself to its voluptuous languor,” Roger Ebert said of the 2001 drama. “You hang around with these kids from the poor side of town while they kill time and share their pipe dreams. A tragedy happens, but the movie is not about the tragedy. It is about the discovery that tragedies can happen.”
William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, took a similar approach to documenting terror.
“This isn’t a film about Dracula. This isn’t a film about the alien,” Friedkin commented in The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist. “This is a film about people who live up the street. Its about a real street in a real town with real people living in it, and in this house and upstairs on the third floor of this house is a real little girl… who happens to be possessed by a demon.”
Green was a good fit for the Halloween movies, in which, like Michael Myers, he carefully observed his characters before brutally massacring them. It’s somehow more terrifying to know that a guy had a peanut butter and jelly banh mi sandwich before having his head chopped off and stuffed with Christmas lights.
But The Exorcist: Believer fails to relate the supernatural horror in the same kind of way. There are no buckets of blood or dozens of deaths to litter the screen… there’s something more subtle, intangible, something that ought to get under your skin. It’s something that the movie completely fails to convey to any degree greater than the dozens of Exorcist clones that have come out over the past 50 years.
The Exorcist is widely considered one of the best horror movies ever made, but few hold its sequels in any kind of regard. And yet The Exorcist II: The Heretic is an unjustly maligned cult classic, and The Exorcist III, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, lives up to the original, and is terrifying in many of the same ways. The Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, in which Renny Harlin and Paul Schrader tell the same story of a young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) through wildly different paths, make for a fascinating double-feature.
The Exorcist: Believer is not without interest, but it invites comparison with the first film without realizing what made it scary, and fails to expand on the concepts raised in the franchise in any meaningful way. Among a much-unloved series of films, this one is the worst yet.