Taking on the mantle of one of Hollywood’s greatest films was always a challenge. Yet David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) broke out beyond the horror community. At that moment, Green’s style and substance spoke to the culture. A massive financial and storytelling success helped Blumhouse and Universal draw the wrong lessons from Green’s success. That led to one of the most frustrating films from Green and his distributors in some time. The Exorcist: Believer lands with a thud. An exercise in franchise revivement (and putting the cart before the horse) leads to a lifeless, boring, and unscary disaster.
In 2010, photojournalist Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and pregnant wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) travel to Haiti. However, when the 2010 Earthquake hits the town they’re staying in, Victor loses his wife in the tragedy. Thirteen years later, Victor lives in a small Georgia town with Angela (Lidya Jewett). He’s overprotective and scared of letting his daughter out of his sight. However, he agrees to let her study at a friend’s house. When Angela and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) go missing, the families fear the worst. When the girls turn up in a barn, it becomes increasingly evident to Victor and Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles & Norbert Leo Butz) that something happened in the woods.
The sins of The Exorcist: Believer begin popping up early. Green showed an odd fascination with mental illness and generalized “weirdness” throughout his Halloween films. Here, he directly otherizes the Haitian culture before using a tragedy as his jumping-off point. This only worsens as the film progresses, with Catholicism seemingly holding trump cards over other variations of Christianity.
Additionally, the issues with portraying mental illness as “deranged” and abnormal runs throughout the film. The Exorcist: Believer frames displaced persons as people with bad intentions. It also frames people in care for mental illness as grotesque and unwanted. It’s a truly odd aspect to include within the framework of this franchise, and the images frame mental illness as something scarier than demons. The way the camera lingers on these background characters feels voyeuristic, not empathetic.
Beyond these thematic problems, The Exorcist: Believer features shockingly bad sound work. The use of recorded dialogue for characters with the camera focused on another character delivers the appearance of considerable rewrites. This, in turn, affects the editing and creates an extremely choppy film. Most of this comes as expositional dumps, but much of it treats the audience as idiots. There’s a moment so egregious in the final minutes that it puts Nolan’s bad exposition in The Dark Knight Rises to shame.
Beyond that, nothing is scary in The Exorcist: Believer. It relies entirely on jump scares to a fault. The imagery feels like a knock-off, and most designs are watered-down versions of previous films. This does not live up to the level of most Insidious or The Exorcism of Emily Rose, let alone the iconic Friedkin film. Instead, it repeats a series of the original’s most famous lines and stumbles at every turn.
Some are blameless in this disaster. Odom Jr. and Jewett are genuinely fantastic in their roles. Odom brings the urgency and the fear of parenthood into The Exorcist: Believer and finds a scene partner in Nettles equal to the task. Jewett delivers a harrowing performance as Angela, elevating the few creepy moments of the story. When Odom and Jewett are paired, they are exceptional. Nettles settles into the “mother” role one would associate with Burstyn and does her best to bring pathos. However, the screenplay never allows her the agency to take over the movie.
Speaking of Burstyn, her limited screen time comes across as nostalgia bait. She’s not bad, but she’s also not given much. Almost every line she delivers is a callback to Friedkin’s film, and her story is so predictable it borders on embarrassing. It’s a waste of one of our great performers. Dowd fits into a similar range, asked to karaoke of her better performances.
To make a great franchise, you need to build around characters the audience can care about. There is nothing in The Exorcist: Believer that makes us care about the next steps of the journey, and yet there will undeniably be more. To make matters worse, almost nothing happens in this film. To assume we need two more of these is asinine when it feels like there was not enough in this film to fuel even the first entry. It’s a sad reality, but The Exorcist: Believer is among the worst horror films of 2023.