As someone who hadn’t grown up watching the Halloween movies, I wasn’t all that excited about David Gordon Green’s 2018 legacy sequel, which was followed by two more films that brought the Laurie Strode-Michael Myers saga to a close. But by the time the third film in the legacy sequel trilogy was released, I had watched all of the Halloween films, and, despite the divisive reactions to Green’s films, I ended up loving them. The Exorcist is a different story, though, because it had a more impactful influence during my formative years. And by “impactful influence,” I mean that it scared me so much that I couldn’t sleep properly, and I even saw Pazuzu in one of my nightmares. So, when I learned that Green was doing a legacy sequel to it, I was optimistic and maybe a tad bit excited as well. Unfortunately, Green has not only failed to craft a worthy successor to the William Friedkin classic, but he has also failed to make a half-decent horror movie with The Exorcist: Believer.
David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer, which he has co-written with Peter Sattler, Scott Teems, and Danny McBride, opens in Haiti, where a couple, Victor and Sorenne Fielding, are vacationing. An earthquake hits the town and demolishes the hotel that the Fieldings were staying in. The pregnant Sorenne, who was in the building, is severely injured, and the doctors say that Victor has to choose between Sorenne and the unborn child because they can’t save them both. The narrative jumps forward in time by 13 years, and we meet Angela (Victor and Sorenne’s daughter). She shares an amicable relationship with her father; she thinks a lot about her mother; and her best friend is Katherine. Angela is rational when it comes to being vegetarian, but she believes in seances. So, she and Katherine walk off into the woods to talk to Sorenne’s spirit for a few hours. Three days go by, and the girls don’t return, thereby prompting a town-wide search. Eventually, they are found in a barn, and the doctors determine that they’re suffering from some form of amnesia. However, what they’re actually suffering from is demonic possession.
To be honest, The Exorcist: Believer starts off really good. The writers put a great deal of effort into establishing the relationship between Victor and Angela, including Victor’s feeling of loss, Victor’s need to protect Angela, and Angela’s yearning for this imaginary version of her mother that she has never seen. Much like its predecessors, that is solid ground for something supernatural to enter and wreak havoc. But as soon as you realize that Angela isn’t the only one who is about to be possessed and there’s a whole other family that’s going to join the ordeal, and their characteristics haven’t been established in the same way, the movie starts to fall apart. Katherine, Miranda, and Tony come off as a generic, Christian family with no personality at all. And based on the treatment of Father Maddox, the bloody Exorcist in an Exorcist movie, it seems like the writers can’t hide their cards really well. They make it so obvious that they don’t care about some of these characters because they won’t make it into the next movie that the sense of tension and fear simply dissipates. And that brings us to the film’s biggest problem: it’s incomplete.
There’s a huge difference between films with no concrete plans of getting a sequel and films that are made with sequels in mind. The Exorcist: Believer is clearly the latter, and you can literally see the writers not committing to the story they are telling at the moment. If you pick up any of the previous Exorcist movies, even the “bad” ones, you’ll see that they tell a complete story. None of them have any kind of sequel bait. They go in, guns blazing, and try to give the characters and the audience some form of catharsis. And until the 50-minute mark, it seems like Green and his team are going to do that too. They do a pretty decent job of making the aforementioned characters feel relatable so that you understand their sense of anxiety and desperation. Then they remember they’ve to be a legacy sequel. So, they bring in Chris MacNeil and let her ramble on about the past. That would’ve been excusable if they didn’t make the Exorcist in the Exorcist movie feel so expendable. Actually, they had two exorcists, and both of them were underutilized. How can someone make a movie that has the word “exorcist” in the title and forget about putting any kind of emphasis on the characters who are exorcists? It’s just so stupid.
Then there’s the exorcism. It’s really mediocre. After the success of The Exorcist, several movies have done exorcism scenes, with The Conjuring trilogy attaining iconic status. But, for me, the gold standard are the exorcism scenes from The Exorcist III. Now, if you are trying to be a part of this lineage, you have to do better. If you are holding back on the theatrics so that you can go all out in the second and third films, that’s understandable (not excusable). That said, at the very least, you have to make it seem like an ordeal. Even if the exorcism in the first Exorcist takes place over the course of a few minutes, you can feel the exhaustion and the toll it’s taking on everyone. The one in The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t feel heavy, and the tricks that demons pull off are a little too juvenile. Unless the CBFC has censored (which I don’t think they have), what I’ve seen is the original cut, and it’s too tame. They rely too heavily on the most juvenile taunts, and even when they try to increase the tension by presenting an impossible choice, the ultimate decision appears to be so obvious that the illusion of suspense ends up being unnecessary.
Okay, let’s talk about the taunts because, even before The Exorcist: Believer was opened to the public, those who had seen it (the North Americans) loudly proclaimed that the movie was anti-abortion. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to any mention of abortion because the country is facing very regressive anti-abortion laws. But are we really misconstruing the villain’s anti-abortion sentiments with the film’s message? Without revealing any spoilers, at no point in the movie are the characters who opted for abortion shown to be weak, apologetic, or second-guessing the choices that they’ve made. They are living with their choices. The demons (who are the villains of the film!) bringing up those choices to taunt the characters isn’t the film’s way of critiquing people who have made the same choices in real life. Chris MacNeil was a single mother in The Exorcist, and she and her daughter were subjected to life-altering torture. Does that mean the movie was anti-single-mother? The Exorcist TV show had a gay British priest and a Mexican priest who were subjected to all kinds of mental and physical torture. Does that mean the show is homophobic and anti-immigrant? No, because at the end of the day, their belief in themselves, the choices they’ve made, their identities, and their affection for their loved ones aren’t wavered by a literal demon from hell.
Now, that doesn’t mean Green and his team are in the clear. You see, when Pazuzu spews anti-abortion nonsense and punishes a character for being pro-choice, it makes sense. He is the villain and he is doing what his real-life counterparts are willing to do to people who are pro-choice. But when the movie turns a character, who used to prioritize one life over another, into someone who refuses to “choose,” and rewards them, while punishing another character, who is anti-abortion coded, as soon as they “choose,” while playing it out like a villainous moment, Green and his team’s intent feels suspicious. Yes, the two instances where the characters have to “choose” are wildly different. However, if you have read any kind of anti-abortion rhetoric, you’ll get what the movie is probably going for. And if that is the case, then it’s unfortunate because the Exorcist films have always questioned the concept of dogma, while restoring faith in the human spirit. An Exorcist movie doing the exact opposite of that, while being a sequel to a classic, is kind of blasphemous. So, until and unless the sequels or Green explicitly addresses these issues, he and his team have to stand on shaky ground.
When it comes to the cast of The Exorcist: Believer, Leslie Odom Jr. carries the movie on his shoulders. His stoicism, through which he hides the pain, confusion, and anger rumbling in his heart, is saddening. There are so many scenes where Victor is silently observing Angela as she withers away because there’s nothing he can do that’ll ease her pain, and Leslie nails that mixture of helplessness and resolve that parents have to show during such distressing times. Ann Dowd is the best. There’s nothing such as a bad Ann Dowd performance. That said, she deserved better. Lidya Jewett and Olivia O’Neill are brilliant. There’s a scene where they’re being examined after their return from the woods, and everything that they do with their eyes and body language to sell their paranoia and dread is amazing. Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz are clearly underwritten, but they make do with what they have. Raphael Sbarge is fine as the pastor. The same can be said about Danny McCarthy. However, E.J. Bonilla and Okwui Okpokwasili are totally misused, and I don’t mean that in a subversive way. I mean that in a bad way. They are the exorcists of the film! Why are they so shallow? I think Green and his team tried to do an “Everyone can be an exorcist if they believe in it” thing and soiled the bed.
In conclusion, the first hour of The Exorcist: Believer is a decent Exorcist movie. The editing, the cinematography, the colors, the texture, and the atmosphere have a sense of familiarity, but they also feel contemporary and grounded. And then, the rest of the movie happens and destroys all the goodwill that it had generated in that first half. In addition to that, and as mentioned before, it’s an incomplete movie because David Gordon Green and his team have two more stories to tell. It seems like they are sure they are going to get to make two more movies, and that’s why they don’t have to put their backs into the first film. Now, I’m no genius, but that doesn’t sound like a good plan. If your first film in a franchise is good, I’ll be asking for hundreds of sequels. If your first film in a franchise is bad, I’ll be asking you to put a stop to it and divert your money to Jeremy Slater’s The Exorcist TV show so that it gets more seasons because the two seasons that he and his team did get to make are golden!