Here we go again. Another exorcism movie brought to us by Hollywood after decades of failing to match the one that made them a mainstream commodity: The Exorcist. And another sequel to the property, no less. For the most part, it’s hard to have anticipation for this genre of horror anymore. Most of them try to replicate the shock-filled brilliance of that first movie, but it cannot be manufactured twice. The Exorcist and Jaws have something in common: they both set a high bar that subsequent films have struggled to match. Although there are other entertaining shark movies, none of them have captured the same magic as Jaws–same is true of exorcism films.
This leads us to The Exorcist: Believer. The new sequel by David Gordon Green has everything going against it. Halloween Ends was incredibly divisive, the majority of Exorcist sequels have been subpar (besides number 3), and, well, no one was asking for a reboot. But here is the twist: I actually kind of enjoyed this one. The Exorcist: Believer certainly has its problems, especially in the back half of the film, but the character writing is stronger than recognized.
[Warning: Impressions and mild spoilers from The Exorcist: Believer are discussed below!]
The Exorcist: Believer story
The film begins in Haiti, where Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves), are visiting the country. While socializing with the locals, an earthquake devastates the area, causing his wife to become terminally injured and forcing Victor to choose between mother and child. We flash forward to when Angela (Lidya Jewett) is 13 and being raised as an only child with Victor. Angela is an endearing and bright kid and seems to have a warm relationship with her dad. Not to mention, Angela loves getting into her mother’s old possessions.
After school, Angela and her friend Katherine (Norah Murphy) sneak off into the woods. There, they light a candle and attempt to make contact with Angela’s mother. But when the film returns to Victor, his daughter has not returned home. Minutes turn to hours, hours turn to a day, and a day becomes three days. But when Angela and Katherine are finally found, they are visibly different, emotionally and physically. And their behavior slowly starts to unravel in bizarre ways.
A tension-filled start in the vein of Prisoners
After Angela goes missing, there is an undeniable sense of unease and tension. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the movie Prisoners, where the urgency and darkness are palpable. Similar to Hugh Jackman’s character, Odom Jr. portrays a father who is resolute in his search for his missing child. Even after he reunites with Angela, his genuine concern for her welfare persists. As Angela’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic without any apparent reason, we can feel the deep love he has for his daughter.
The film shines in showing how regular people might react in such a strange circumstance, making the viewer care deeply about the children’s suffering. As Angela’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic without explanation, it’s evident how much he loves Angela. This momentum lasts for about 40 minutes before the second half begins, introducing us to an older Chris MacNiel (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of Regan from the original movie. From here, The Exorcist: Believer begins to lose some of its grip on the audience.
The Exorcist connections are a mess
The moment Exorcist: Believer is forced to acknowledge its roots is where the film falls short. Burstyn is nothing but an exposition character to explain demon possession. She has no real purpose in the movie beyond saying, “This is an Exorcist sequel.” Once she gets involved with the new family, her character makes unrealistic decisions. For someone who survived a possessed daughter, she behaves like someone who is inexperienced. And then, for some reason, she is almost excommunicated from the plot. Overall, there was no reason to bring Burstyn into the film, and if one does bring her back again, she deserves better than this.
The film’s opening half mainly elevates the exorcism scenes. We care about the fate of Angela and Victor as a family, and the stakes are mostly hinged by their chemistry. However, the exorcism scenes are mostly predictable. One segment of the sequence involving a death was intended to be shocking, but the setup is on the nose. It’s one of those scenes where the hope feels intentionally manufactured, and one can see the rug about to be pulled away.
The Exorcist: Believer survives by its characters
Overall, the film was satisfying, primarily due to its character work. The movie would have fallen flat in the second half without the strong setup. The father-and-daughter relationship portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr. and Lidya Jewett anchored the emotional core of the experience. Some choices might drive purists of the original nuts. But this should be expected from a David Gordon Green sequel after Halloween Ends. Despite this writer’s enjoyment (and this writer was entertained), unless the exorcism genre can find a fresh take, then exorcism movies need to go the way of Westerns.
My rating for this film
The Exorcist: Believer is currently in theaters. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord.