Fifty years ago, director William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty scared and thrilled audiences with The Exorcist, an eerie, thought-provoking film featuring Ellen Burstyn. “It’s an excellent day for an exorcism,” echoed through that film’s box office run in late 1973 and all throughout 1974, challenged only by Titanic in 1997, having spawned two sequels and two prequels. Possessed to reinvigorate the franchise, director David Gordon Green (Halloween) crafts a direct sequel to Friedkin’s original film with the release of The Exorcist: Believer.
The question for fans of Friedkin’s original is, is it still an excellent day for an exorcism?
It’s a challenge to craft a story worthy of the franchise name and to tell an inventive story about possession, the devil, and ultimately looking within at our frailties. The Exorcist: Believer is far more supernatural than it is psychological. Peter Sattler (Camp X-Ray) co-wrote the screenplay with Green, based on a screen story from Scott Teems, Danny McBride, and Green, further based on characters by Blatty. Sattler and Green focus less on the creepiness of the setting and more on our own psychological traumas. The Exorcist: Believer is a far more emotionally internalized story as Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) faces the disappearance of his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), and her subsequent reappearance.
The Exorcist: Believer doubles down on the devils incarnate in this round, afflicting Katherine (Olivia Marcum) and her parents, Tony (Norbert Leo Butz) and Miranda (Jennifer Nettles). The aggrieved, worried parents show far more aggression in trying to find their daughters, given the scenario in which they disappear, reflecting parents’ general concern for their children’s well-being in a modernized society. A camera set up by cinematographer Michael Simmons early in their struggle to control their emotions frames Nettles and Odom in a very interesting way, giving rise to a common theme in the film: our interconnectedness. It doesn’t play out within the film between the two actors the same way as it does between Jewett and Marcum. Perhaps it’s eye candy for the future installments in this new trilogy.
Suffice it to say, Victor is convinced more is at play than just a simple case of the children’s disappearance and subsequent reappearance. His past doesn’t allow for belief in a higher power, so he has doubts, bringing those decisions into question while surrounding the character with much distrust. Ann Dowd steps in to bridge the trauma of the current events with the one person in the world who might be able to assist with Angela’s recovery, Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil. Dowd is the gem character and actress in this story; her character, Ann, has the most depth of the new characters as her story is revealed, playing a role in context similar to Father Karras in the original film.
The story nearly leaps in logic involving Dowd’s Ann but manages to recover nicely. Once Burstyn appears on screen, a level of familiarity elevates the production. However, the film’s second half is where The Exorcist: Believer derails and never fully recovers. By choosing to focus on each character’s past flaws combined with a character interconnectedness rather than the atmospherics that drove the original story, Green and Sattler pigeonhole the story toward only one destination.
What presents itself as an attempt to solve the immediate problem becomes an ecumenical crisis of faith. It isn’t enough that one interpretation of a higher power might drive the devil out of Angela and Katherine. Chaos ensues. Surprisingly, Odom’s performance as Victor is the most evenly keeled for someone who wears his doubts on his sleeves. Nettles and Butz play the devoted faithful, and Butz’s Tony appears to have more on his mind than the character alludes to; however, the character comes off as more of a creeper than a functioning aspect of the film. Nettles’ Miranda is far more vociferous in her disapproval of Tony, but the story doesn’t do much with it.
Green builds his tension through a plethora of jump scares, some of which work, though most have been overutilized by this point. If jump scares are your jam, The Exorcist: Believer is your ticket. The film has broader appeal with Odom and Burstyn in it if you’re willing to commit to another trilogy. Its budget isn’t bloated, so if it does well on opening weekend, expect the next installment in 2025.
Although The Exorcist spawned two sequels and two prequels, it is also responsible for spawning films such as Event Horizon, Ouija, and Stigmata, all of whose themes reappear in The Exorcist: Believer, while pulling directly from The Exorcist. The Exorcist: Believer struggles to maintain its uniqueness, unable to differentiate itself from the classic that spawned it because the story didn’t make the characters’ struggles believable.
The Exorcist: Believer questions where a direct trilogy could lead its faithful. Several breadcrumbs elevate expectations for the following two entries. However, Green’s Halloween trilogy left a sour aftertaste, so doubt in the interconnected nature of this trilogy and its characters is naturally elevated.
As a start to a new trilogy and a continuation of a classic film with an enduring legacy, this was not an excellent day for an exorcism.
It wasn’t even a good day for one.