David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer is an abysmal, dull attempt to relaunch the franchise in the 21st century.
PLOT: After going missing for three days, two thirteen-year-old girls (Lidya Jewett & Olivia Marcum) return with no memory of their absence but exhibiting strange, violent behaviour that the father (Leslie Odom Jr) of one girl deduces is demonic possession.
REVIEW: Pity poor David Gordon Green. While obviously a hardcore horror fan, the former indie darling took a critical mauling with Halloween Ends and seems doomed to repeat the experience with The Exorcist: Believer. It’s supposed to be the first entry in a new trilogy of Exorcist films, but the movie is so abysmal one shouldn’t hold out too much hope for a follow-up. While it may have a strong box-office opening, word of mouth seems sure to be dire. The only thing that saves Exorcist: Believer from being called the worst Exorcist movie ever is the fact that this particular series has some very bad entries. While this isn’t as awful as the infamous Exorcist II: The Heretic, I’d wager that movie has more entertainment value in its badness. Crazy as it may seem, The Exorcist: The Beginning is actually a better Exorcist movie than this, and it’s far inferior to the excellent Exorcist III or Paul Schrader’s rejected Dominion.
The Exorcist: Believer starts ok, with Green paying homage to the way William Friedkin shot the opening to his original classic in documentary style, with footage of Odom Jr.’s character and his wife visiting Haiti, only to get caught in the infamous 2010 earthquake, which, in the film kills his pregnant wife, although the child survives. It’s not even bad in the early scenes, depicting the initial search for the mysteriously vanished girls, Angela and Katherine. The notoriously rough medical examinations in the first film are paid homage to in an unnerving scene where the girls are given rape kits. But, once the possession starts, its all downhill.
Green and his co-writer Peter Sattler give you nothing you haven’t seen before. The same could be said of his Halloween movies, but at least in those, you could have fun with the kills. There’s a limited number of ways to make an exorcism scary or exciting, and Friedkin’s movie took the material about as far as possible. By contrast, Green’s movie is tame, with very little in the way of scares. It’s standard stuff, and the recent The Nun 2 is more effective, even if most of its scares were of the cheap jump variety. This doesn’t even have that.
What’s worse is how Green has bent over backwards to make the premise acceptable to a 21st-century audience. Catholicism is downplayed, with it seeming like they didn’t want to be accused of saying any religion is more dominant than any other. One of the possessed girls says that the devil doesn’t exist, and at the end, Odom Jr.’s character assembles an Avengers-esque God squad to perform the exorcism, including baptist and Pentecostal pastors, a ritualistic healer and Ann Dowd’s former noviciate, who left the service after becoming pregnant and having an abortion. There’s a priest in E.J. Bonilla’s Father Maddox, but he’s a wimp.
Of the cast, only Dowd has much of an arc, but after giving her a chance to do some of the exorcism, she’s sidelined with a lot of hokum, with the movie leaving the door wide open for future instalments. Odom is given virtually nothing to do but look concerned and play the skeptic (initially). He’s such a solid actor that he should have been given a role as one of the exorcists rather than simply getting the stock, concerned parent role.
Of course, they’re selling the movie on Ellen Burstyn’s return as Chris MacNeil, but she fares horribly here. In short, they’ve made her insufferable, with us supposed to sympathize with the fact that Regan hates her because her mom wrote a tell-all about their ordeal (I don’t blame her). The movie also has the year’s dumbest line. At one point, Chris explains that she wasn’t allowed into the room when her daughter was given an exorcism. When asked why, she blames – and I’m not kidding here – the patriarchy. Never mind that of the two priests who saved her daughter, one died, and one might have gone to hell. What a slap in the face to franchise fans to trivialize Father Merrin and Father Karras. Were William Friedkin still alive, I’m sure he would have mocked this attempt at political correctness that will likely earn groans from horror fans.
Ultimately, it’s too bad that The Exorcist: Believer is so awful, as Green remains a skilled director, albeit one that either needs to take a break from horror or try his hand at something original. We’re living in a good era for the genre, with Talk to Me, It Lives Inside and plenty of other original fare proving to be more worthy of our box office dollar than this dull retread. In the end, series like Halloween, A Nightmare of Elm Street, Friday the 13th and (especially) Evil Dead are malleable enough that you can turn them into long, enduring franchises. But, with The Exorcist, you can do only so much. Watch the original instead.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/the-exorcist-believer-review/