Film Reviews

The Exorcist: Believer

Published October 6, 2023
Those difficult teenage years...

It took at least forty minutes for anything weird to happen in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), often said to be the scariest film ever made. David Gordon Green’s The Exorcist: Believer proceeds in an equally methodical fashion, letting us get to know the main characters before winding into the big confrontation with the demon.

The message is clear: this is no vulgar slasher flick, it’s a serious movie. Friedkin’s original film was a superior piece of cinema, and Green has attempted to follow in the legendary director’s footsteps. The outcome is a qualified success – a horror feature that tries to say something profound about good and evil, love and faith, but ultimately creeps around the edges of these big topics.

The light dusting of philosophy will be wasted on most horror fans, who simply want to be scared witless. As for the strange subculture whi judge the quality of a film by the volume of gore and brutality, they’re already witless.

I worry that I’m becoming a hardened case myself. I watched the 1973 film again this week, and barely felt my pulse flutter. The new version, even with the benefit of the big screen, proved no scarier. With repetition, the standard horror tropes become familiar and predictable. This is why the great horror movies are psychological masterpieces, such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968); or expressionist, operatic affairs, such as Dario Argento’s celebrated giallo, Suspiria (1977).

The Exorcist (1973) was notable for the well-rounded nature of the characters. By the time the muscular Father Karras went toe-to-toe with the forces of evil, we knew as much as the demon did about his history and his weaknesses. The new film gives us a long-lead introduction to Victor Fielding (Leslie Odum Jr.), a photographer living in Percy, Georgia, who is sole parent to 12-year-old Angela (Lydia Jewett).

We get Victor’s backstory in the early scenes of the film, set in an ‘exotic’ location. The first Exorcist began in an archaeological dig in northern Iraq, and this time we’re in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where we learn how Victor lost his beloved wife, Sorenne. It lays the foundation for what is to follow, for the insecurities and tensions that make his daughter vulnerable to possession.

The trouble begins when Angela and her friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), wander into the woods after school, where they descend into a noisome-looking drain, and play around with a charm trying to contact the spirits of the dead. That’s the last we’ll see of them for three days. When they are finally located, 30 miles away, they are taken to hospital and given the same kind of intrusive medical examination as the one Regan endured in the first film.

When they are sent home the first symptoms appear – the glazed look, the rattling noises in the house, the piss and blood, the surging violence, and finally, the deep baritone of the demon speaking through the girls’ mouths. We’ve seen it all before – in the original film, and in the various sequels that have been made in the intervening 50 years.

The first of these, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), is considered a career faux pas by British director, John Boorman, and often nominated as one of the worst films of all time. Other sequels in 1990 and 2005 – the latter, Dominion, directed by Paul Schrader – were given a more favourable reception, but the full list of follow-ons and rip-offs is a shambles. This latest film tries to forget about these distractions and connect directly to the Friedkin original.

Consequently, Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil, is brought back – at the age of 90 – as an authority on demonic possession. We learn that after the events of the first film she gave up her acting career and wrote a book about her experiences. One result is that it estranged her from her daughter, who resented being the focus of so much lurid publicity.

Burstyn’s inclusion is but one of many links to the original film. Inevitably we hear the distinctive strains of Mike Oldfield’s theme music tinkling in the background. There’s the nasty vomit and stench, and the demon’s trick of turning heads around 180 degrees.

Where The Exorcist: Believer takes a contemporary turn, is that Victor and his daughter are apparently the only black residents in a middle-class neighbourhood where most of their neighbours seem to be white evangelicals.

Katherine’s parents, Miranda and Tony (Jennifer Nettles & Norbert Leo Butz) are committed churchgoers, as is Victor’s friend, Stuart (Danny McCarthy). Their next-door neighbour, Ann (Ann Dowd), is a committed Catholic who trained to be a nun in her youth but fell pregnant instead. Raphael Sbarge is the evangelical pastor drawn into these events, while E.J. Bonilla plays Father Maddox, a Catholic priest who tries to abide by the calls from head office.

Throughout the story there is a persistent suggestion that Katherine’s evangelical parents are aggressive, entitled types who see their faith as a badge of moral and social superiority. Although it’s never stated, their discomfort with Victor, a self-professed atheist, shows the contempt of believers for the infidel, but it also has racist overtones. We recognise Miranda and Tony as the kind of hypocrites who regularly get the worst of it in conventional horror movies. In this instance it’s not so cut-and-dried.

If the evangelicals are portrayed in a negative light, the Catholic Church doesn’t fare much better, being stiff, hierarchical, and over-institutionalised. The message from this film is that the only way to overcome evil is by everyone co-operating, embracing genuine feelings of love rather than the social forms. This means being open to all beliefs, including the magical mumbo jumbo of Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), a former oncologist who decided that science didn’t have all the answers.

Gathered in a room, around the two possessed girls – green-faced, scarred and beady-eyed – who snarl and curse, puff smoke and vomit, is a microcosm of American society. Deeply divided in their beliefs, these people must pull together in a crisis if the next generation is to survive. It’s not enough to profess one’s faith, like Miranda and Tony, or close oneself off, as Victor does. The filmmakers want us to see that it’s not just these two girls, but the contemporary American psyche that is possessed by the spirits of extremism and division. It’s going to take one hell of an exorcist to expell these demons.

The Exorcist: Believer

Directed by David Gordon Green

Written by Peter Sattler, David Gordon Green & Scott Teems

Starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill, Ellen Burstyn

USA, MA 15+, 125 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 October, 2023