05th Oct2023

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Ellen Burstyn | Written by Peter Sattler, David Gordon Green | Directed by David Gordon Green

Fresh from the recent Halloween sequels, director and co-writer David Gordon Green takes a crack at another big-name horror franchise with this legacy sequel to The Exorcist, the first of a planned trilogy. The result is something of a mixed bag, and your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your relationship to the original movie.

In an effective prologue, African-American photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), has to make a horrific choice between saving the life of his wife, or that of his unborn child, following a devastating earthquake. Cut to fourteen years later, where we find Victor as a single parent in Ohio, living with his teenage daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), whose best friend is her white school friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum).

When Angela and Katherine go missing in the woods and are found three days later with apparent amnesia, Victor and Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) are deeply concerned, which quickly turns to horror when both girls begin to display signs of demonic possession. In desperation, Victor reaches out for help, which brings him into contact with Chris MacNeill (Ellen Burstyn), who turned her daughter’s exorcism into a best-selling book and has been estranged from her ever since.

Green and his production team have clearly done their homework when it comes to William Friedkin’s classic, with multiple shots and moments from the original movie echoing throughout the film, even before Burstyn appears. The problem is that while the legacy status obviously confers both legitimacy and heightened press interest, it arguably harms the film and doesn’t do it any real favours.

For one thing, all of Ellen Burstyn’s scenes could comfortably be removed with little or no change to the actual plot. Indeed, it often feels like the filmmakers left themselves that option in case it didn’t work out, since she frequently feels disconnected from the main events (a problem that, in fairness, also owes something to shooting during Covid).

At any rate, the script – co-written by Green and Peter Sattler, from a story by Green, Scott Teems and Danny McBride – can’t find enough for Burstyn to do to really justify her presence, and without giving anything away, what does happen feels at best like cheap shock value and at worst like a disrespectful insult.

The Exorcist: Believer has other problems too, not least in the chaotic and confusing final act, which has at least four different exorcists all doing their own thing at the same time. Sometimes, a bit of exposition can be a good thing, and the third act here could really have used a scene where everybody sits down together and comes up with a plan, because otherwise it just looks like they’re all winging it.

The other main problem is really a problem with exorcism films in general, because where can you really go after The Exorcist, which is widely acknowledged as one of the all-time great horror movies. As a result, all exorcism films essentially fall victim to the same thing – you’ll feel like you’ve seen it all before, because you have.

That said, if you ignore the legacy elements, there’s enough going on in The Exorcist: Believer to ensure that the film ultimately works on its own terms. The performances, for example, are excellent – Odom Jr. delivers a charismatic performance and makes his emotional journey both engaging and convincing, while young Lidya Jewett is both heart-breaking and creepy as Angela and Ann Dowd is reliably great as Victor’s neighbour, who has secrets of her own.

On top of that, the first half of the film is extremely strong, creating a genuinely chilling atmosphere and telling a gripping story that taps into eminently relatable parental fears about not being able to look after their children. To that end, it’s almost disappointing when the demons show up.

In the end, it’s fair to say that The Exorcist: Believer will arguably play better with people who have little or no knowledge of the original movie, and just want some forgettable Friday night scares. It’s hard to imagine there being much appetite for the planned sequels afterwards though.

*** 3/5

The Exorcist: Believer comes to UK cinemas on Friday, October 6th.


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