NOC Review: ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ is Not Very Compelling

What a disappointing start to the Fall Movie Season. First The Creator, now The Exorcist: Believer. These were two highly anticipated films for me this year, with this one supposedly being a follow up to my favorite horror movie of all time. And sadly, Believer simply doesn’t live up to what’s been otherwise a pretty solid year for horror, much less the legacy of its namesake.

It’s a sad state of affairs (though a genius stroke of marketing) when your three-minute Halloween Horror Nights maze at Universal Studios Hollywood is scarier than the entirety of your two-hour movie. But alas, that’s the truth. Because as a film, The Exorcist: Believer is incredibly short on scares or anything really resembling tension. There’s, as par for the course with Blumhouse, several jump scares peppered throughout the film. But as far as imagery or immersion goes (strengths of the original film by the way) the apple that represents this faux-legacy sequel falls incredibly far from the tree bearing the fruit of the Best Picture-nominated original.

(from left) Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett, back to camera) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

The film follows Leslie Odom Jr.’s single father, Victor Fielding; a man who suffered through the traumatic death of his wife, and has had to raise his 13-year old daughter Angela alone. Angela and her friend Katherine walk into the woods one day, and disappear for three days. When they return without any memory of what happened to them, both of them begin to exhibit strange, creepy, violent behavior. Understanding they are up against something evil, Victor teams up with the parents of Katherine (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), Angela’s nurse/neighbor (Ann Dowd), and a woman who has had extensive experiences with exorcism — franchise mainstay Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) — to vanquish the demonic presence that followed their daughters home.

Off the bat, the marketing efforts and creative team behind the film will have you think this is a direct sequel to The Exorcist in the same way Halloween (2018) was a direct sequel to Halloween (1978). But it honestly doesn’t feel like it because it’s essentially a stand alone story that just barely shoehorns in a classic character or two into the film in superfluous ways. It’s one thing to do a completely separate story set within this universe. It’s one thing to do a direct sequel centering on classic characters from the original. But it’s an entirely different thing to make 80% of a movie that has nothing to do with a classic movie, and have it essentially be just barely connected to said classic for about 15 mins or less.

(from left) Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

Yes, sadly the long touted return of Burstyn to the franchise that’s been the linchpin of the film’s marketing campaign is nothing more than an unnecessary, slightly-bigger-than-a-cameo role that really brought nothing to the movie. If you were to take the entire thing out, you’d still have the same movie. So if you’re coming into this movie with the hope that it’ll be some semblance of a continuation about Chris MacNeil or Regan’s story in any way shape or form, in the same way Halloween (2018) was about Laurie Strode, prepare to be disappointed.

But that wasn’t the biggest grievance the movie committed to me. Did I want this to be a continuation? Sure. But more than anything, I just wanted it to be scary. The trailers were well cobbled together to produce a pretty eerie, chilling effect. And the concept is intriguing enough to capture my curiosity and creep me out. And then I saw the movie. And it simply wasn’t terrifying in the way the original movie, or modern classics like Hereditary, are. It was bland. And that’s incredibly disappointing. I walked out of the theater really just numb, and within 10 minutes, I’d stopped thinking about it.

(from left) Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

The pity about the movie is it starts out pretty strong. In some ways, it’s two films. And the missing child drama was more suspenseful and tragic than the demonic possession horror film. The desperation in Odom’s acting in that first third, and the intensity of the realistically horrible possibility that something like this could actually happen, was reminiscent of Prisoners. And you’re emotionally invested in the search for these missing children, and feel the anger, grief, and fear of these parents. Even when the kids return, and the doctors are running physical tests on them, you’re worried about their well being and the real possibility of them having been harmed while they were gone. And there’s a lot of emotion and tragedy in seeing Odom’s character come to terms with the possibility that he’d have to commit his daughter to a sanitarium.

But alas, the movie naturally isn’t about the hardships of having to deal with the challenges of the mental illness of a loved one. Nor is it exclusively about the burdens of parenting (it is, at its core, but that’s not what Universal’s going to sell the movie as). This is an Exorcist movie, and it has to be about demons and possessions. So we have to build to the inevitable, albeit boring, horror aspects of the film, shot without style, tension, or originality. And much of the film meanders after running out of steam midway through before ending with an over-CG’ed by-the-numbers exorcism scene with make up, voice changers, and floating bodies. It feels like they ran out of story, and overcompensated with what they thought would be flashy cheap jazz hands.

(from lower left, clockwise) Angela Fielding (Lidya Jewett, back to camera), Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), Pastor Don Revans (Raphael Sbarge), Doctor Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), Ann (Ann Dowd), Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Stuart (Danny McCarthy) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

For me it just felt so routine. But also the jarring editing didn’t help. The pacing starts out slow, then midway through, it almost felt like they knew they had a turkey on their hand and started rushing through moments, like bringing on a Catholic priest, and introducing a ritualistic healer to try and make the film as religion-agnostic and inoffensive as possible. It all just felt incredibly bizarre, as if director David Gordon Green thought it wouldn’t matter as long as he delivered the goods on an exorcism scene at the end. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate because the actors are the ones putting their heart and soul into this. Odom, who I’ve mentioned, is terrific. You feel his loss of faith, his grief, and the power in his love through his eyes, his delivery, and his embodiment of the character. But I have to say, I was incredibly impressed with newcomers Lidya Jewett (Angela) and Olivia Marcum (Katherine). The pair are exceptionally good at snarling, screaming, and staring, going from sweet one moment and completely menacing and intimidating the next. They definitely deserve better debuts than this paper thin script and story that’s basically “Let’s take Prisoners and tack on an Exorcist-like finale, and- hey!- what if we throw in Ellen Burstyn and make it an official Exorcist movie?” Even the usually reliable Ann Dowd tries her best, as always, but can’t save her own cliched “former nun” story. It really is a waste.

Ann Dowd as Ann in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green.

On a technical level, the makeup effects and the sound are generally well done. Despite the movie not being very scary, the makeup job on both Jewett and Marcum as the film progresses gets a lot more alarming. It’s never as disturbing as what the 1973 makeup artists did to Linda Blair, but it’s one of the few effective elements in this movie. And the sound editing to make visceral snake sounds and guttural growls sound frighteningly real is actually pretty top-notch.

But that’s essentially where the compliments for this one end. At the end of the day, the movie, more or less, just feels like a pointless cash grab designed to trick people into seeing a movie with stunt casting and a famous franchise name brand associated with it. The irony of course is that it’s actually going to hurt it in the long run, because The Exorcist is a classic, and audiences will see that Believer is a hollow would-be homage to everything that made the original great, sans any genuine thrills or emotion. Where the 1973 film was compelling and horrifying, this 2023 dud is super bland, pointless, and shallow, never earning its franchise moniker, nor the Easter eggs that come with it. Overall, the only thing The Exorcist: Believer will compel you to do is leave the theater with a giant shrug of disappointment.

Overall Score: D

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