One of the greatest horror films of all time, The Exorcist has stood for five decades not just because it was scary and unique, but arguably dangerous. The production was littered with accidents, setbacks, injuries, and even crew deaths, leading to a superstition that the project was cursed. Upon its release, the visceral, graphic depictions of the titular ritual were so shocking that there were calls from groups all over the world to have it banned, with some believing that Satan himself resided in the reels.
That’s a legacy that can’t be bought, only earned, and it’s exactly why the new legacy sequel/reboot, The Exorcist: Believer fails almost entirely. Directed and co-written by David Gordon Green, and produced by Danny McBride (who also has a story credit), the main team behind the recent Halloween reboot trilogy, this film suffers from the exact same core problem as those movies did. There’s clear affection for the original work in this, with references, Easter Eggs, cameos, and repurposed effects. But just as before, the similarities are superficial at best, as the creators fundamentally miss the mark on what made The Exorcist so timeless and dangerous in the first place, opting for cheap spectacle over anything meaningful.
Leslie Odom, Jr. stars as Victor Fielding, a photographer who begins the movie in Haiti with his pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves). After receiving a voodoo blessing for the unborn child’s protection, Sorenne is severely injured in an earthquake, to the point that only one can be saved between her and the baby, and Victor is told by local doctors to make the choice.
Fast forward 13 years, and Victor is now an overprotective father to Angela (Lidya Jewett), a fairly well-adjusted middle school student, the two living modestly in small town Georgia. After school one day, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) sneak off to the woods and go to what looks like an opening to a catacomb, which you just find everywhere in Georgia. There, they perform a somewhat playful exercise in hopes of letting Angela speak to her dead mother. The girls don’t return home, and after an exhaustive search, they’re found three days later in a barn 30 miles away with no memory of what happened and small burns on their feet.
Angela and Katherine return to their homes, where they immediately begin displaying disturbing behavior. Angela attacks Victor, while Katherine trashes the Eucharist storage area in her church, upsetting her parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) and their minister (Raphael Sbarge). Victor’s neighbor, Ann (Ann Dowd), who is also a nurse caring for the girls, is convinced that they’ve been possessed by a demon, and offers the skeptical Victor help in arranging an exorcism to save them. This leads to Victor seeking out Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn reprising her role from the original) and forming a group effort — along with his Pentecostal neighbor (Danny McCarthy), a local rootwork healer (Okwui Okpokwasili), and a priest (E.J. Bonilla) — to expel the demon from the children.
This could have worked. The pieces were there. The problem is that Gordon, McBride, and the others involved in the creative decisions completely missed the point of the original and why it was so impactful. At its most basic, The Exorcist is a about the redemption of a fallen man of the cloth, a mother desperate to help her child who is beyond her ability to comfort or heal, and the importance of sacrificing for others. There are some who were genuinely offended by the extreme devices used to tell that story, particularly because it challenged the status quo, questioned the tenets of faith, and even adapted a pre-Christian myth (Pazuzu is from Abyssinian and Babylonian legend) to fit a modern context, arguing that the righteous will use the tools at their disposal at a given time in order to do good.
This film is legitimately offensive, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s not subversive in the slightest, instead asserting a fairly direct message that Christianity is the one true faith, an issue I’ve long had with supernatural horror in general. Literally every person involved in the exorcism, from converted skeptic Victor to the rootworking Dr. Beehibe (who abandoned an oncology practice in favor of Afro-Christian mysticism, because fuck science, amirite?), all comport to some denomination or practice of Christianity, giving massive lie to Chris’ assertion that exorcism concerns all faiths and cultures, and that a united front representing everyone is ideal for the girls’ salvation. The only truly non-Christian ritual that takes place is the voodoo ceremony that Sorenne gets in the opening, and she dies. So what does that tell you? Ann, who trained to become a nun but backed out of the Holy Orders after having an abortion (oh yeah, the film makes its opinions on reproductive choice pretty clear), at several points makes the case that any and all religion is good, because the people who subscribe to it are inherently good. Now, this isn’t the movie’s fault, because there’s no way they could have predicted it, but we’re literally watching a war play out in Israel right now that disproves such an assertion.
This inane thesis is even undermined by the film’s own ending (which I won’t spoil, but good Lord did it piss me off!), which makes you want to find the nearest person saying, “Everything happens for a reason” and beat the shit out of them. I mean, for fuck’s sake, you’re seeking out the aid of the Catholic Church, an organization that has covered up the rape of children for decades, and you have the gall to stand there and tell me that faith is a universal force for good? Fuck entirely off! And before anyone scoffs, I’m not bashing religion or people of faith. I’m saying that this movie is beyond intellectually dishonest when it comes to the subject, particularly given the ways the original so eloquently and boldly examined the nuance of faith. At best, this just pays incredibly misplaced lip service, and at worst, it’s disingenuous manipulation.
The only person who seems to have understood the assignment is Odom, who plays Victor the way any of us would want someone in that position to. Like Chris before him, he’s heartbroken and scared because he doesn’t know how to help his daughter, and he’s wracked with self-doubt. But he’s willing to open his mind and entertain explanations that conflict with his beliefs and experience if it serves the greater purpose of saving his child’s life. He’s committed to Angela, no matter the cost to himself, and more than anyone else in the film he truly cares for the people involved either as voluntary or unwitting collateral damage. Him I believe, but basically no one else. To a lesser extent, Burstyn demonstrates an evolution of Chris’ character in what amounts to an extended cameo (in order to set up a different cameo — guess who it is), and her involvement does lead to the one genuinely shocking moment of the entire picture. Beyond that, though, no one on the screen comes off as anything more than a one-note device to proselytize.
This complete lack of understanding is what ruined the Halloween reboot for me. It’s not enough to just see a masked, silent killer and think it’s cool. You have to delve into the characters, get to the heart of the danger, and then let the mayhem ensue because it’s rooted in something truly terrifying. The filmmakers failed to recognize this then, and they fail to do so here. It feels more like someone said, “Hey, you know what’s freakier than a possessed kid? TWO POSSESSED KIDS!” and called it a day. After that, they just settled for surface-level rehashes of some of the more famous scenes from the original. Scratches? Check. Beady, yellow eyes and bloody red teeth? Check. Guy gets his neck snapped? Check. Vomit? Check. That’s all this is, cheaply supplemented by lazy CGI in some fairly cheesy moments (smoke from a fireplace intermingling with “vapors” from the demon under a lamp). In all honesty, the best compliment I can give to the production values is the fact that the “Jump Fail” protocol was not triggered, as there were only four jump scares that I counted.
“God played a trick on you,” gurgles the possessed Angela late in the film. I don’t know about all that, but I definitely know that Green, McBride, and Blumhouse did by using brand recognition to pass off a generic, substandard exorcism movie as being a legit follow-up to the greatest such story ever made. Satan doesn’t hide in these reels, but I’ll bet studio notes do. This is absolute garbage that plays on your familiarity with something great in order to serve you something aggressively stupid, pandering, and overwrought in its near-propaganda level of religious messaging. And in one of the few moments where they attempt to do something even mildly ballsy, they undercut that already problematic premise in a way that satisfies nobody and is ultimately insulting to the faithful and secular alike. Odom and Burstyn save this from being the worst movie of the year, but only just. I can’t believe that I fell for this schlock again, and I’m absolutely in no way shocked that two more sequels are already in the works.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What is the most dangerous movie you’ve ever seen? When can we file a restraining order against Green and McBride on behalf of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s estates? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!