It’s been 50 years since the release of The Exorcist, a horror movie that has come to influence multiple generations and will continue to influence future generations to this day. Its impact on horror is insurmountable, with its fingers having a hand in most exorcist genre films we’ve seen since. Now, we’ve seen the film franchise resurrected, with director David Gordon Green at the helm of THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER.

In THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER, audiences are introduced to Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his daughter’s birth. Jumping forward 13-year years, the dynamic between father and daughter is strong, but perhaps a little overbearing. Angela (Lidya Jewett) wants to connect with her mother and, after some logistical maneuvering, takes tabula rasa-esque Katherine (Olivia Marcum) out with her into the woods to seek answers.

The girls go missing for three days, sparking a community-wide search that ends with the girls being found in a barn. With no memory of what’s occurred, all the parents can do is observe. Within rapid succession, the girls start to act out before it becomes clear something has possessed them. Forced to make hard choices, will the parents of these girls be able to drive the demons out? Or will they have to watch the girls succumb to the evil that resides in them?

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER doesn’t believe in itself

Courtesy Universal Pictures and Blumhouse
Does THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER do enough to shirk the long shadow of its predecessor’s legacy? Unfortunately, no. Instead, THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER drags it along like a well-worn carcass while failing to fully build up the elements that could differentiate it from the pack. If there’s anything to believe, it’s that The Exorcist is the albatross around this film’s neck, choking the life out of it before it can even take a breath.

The fault of this lies in the hands of the screenplay written by Green and Peter Sattler, from a story by Scott Teems, Danny McBride, and Green. So distracted are they by tying in The Exorcist IP to the overarching scope of THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER that it drowns out all the intriguing new elements of the story. In fact, the lack of development in characters and the overall story may be in part due to the death grip embrace on incorporating Chris MacNeil into the script.

The strong single father/daughter dynamic is a highlight and should have been the subject of more focus. It’s such an interesting dynamic, one that seldom gets much exploration in the media that there could have been more done. Despite the lack of story within the script, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Lidya Jewett make the best of what they have. Jewett is a notable standout as is newcomer Olivia Marcum for the physicality of their performance and range.

What could have been?

Courtesy Universal Pictures and Blumhouse

This is a note that carries over to other story factors as well. What happens in the woods between Angela and Katherine? Their apparent close friendship? It’s never fully explored. Katherine’s father’s sin? Mentioned once and left for dead. Katherine as a character? We don’t really know her. Instead, it’s almost like she exists to be a projection of our memories of Reagan, down to the eerily similar possessed appearance.

The focus on religion in THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER is another strong point that gets lost in the film’s third act. Possession, as the film points out, is a phenomenon that exists in all cultures and religions. Green tries to explore this thread but it’s almost as if there’s a lack of faith in going further with what it was he was trying to answer. When it comes time to drive out the demons, the figures present at the exorcism are overwhelmingly of the Western Christian faith.

It is as if the team was so focused on trying to make this connect with the first film that they couldn’t trust themselves to stray too far. Ironically, what they do end up doing with the IP is wasting a good opportunity. Ellen Burstyn’s appearance as Chris was wholly unnecessary. Any other character could have served the function she poses to the story. Her character’s arc is a slap in the face and proves how the film itself is a wasted opportunity for more.

The potential is there

Courtesy Universal Pictures and Blumhouse

The actors in THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER do the best with what they have. All deliver what their characters require, even if sometimes it seems like they over-deliver. Ann Dowd, in particular, makes a meal of the otherwise cheesy dialogue, finding the emotional beats and the pregnant pauses whilst highlighting what she could have delivered with a competent script. Again, we see where things can go if the writers trust in their risk-taking with the film’s climax and subsequent conclusion separate from MacNeil’s arc. But the constant undercutting is too hard to shake.

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER overwhelmingly fails to believe in itself, relying on the crutch of its IP to drive things forward. The performances desperately grasp to pull things together, but also highlight how poorly constructed the dialogue is. There are tangibly good elements in the story – the father/daughter dynamics, the exploration of different religions, the connection between the girls – but all gets lost in the weeds due to a failure of investment in development. If this trilogy hopes to succeed, it needs to free itself from its reliance on the IP and feel comfortable embracing the new.

THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER arrives in theaters on October 6.

Sarah Musnicky
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