So it’s a fairly well established that we want, if not require familiar horror-themed franchise films every Halloween; the shortening days encourage tales told in the dark. David Gordon Green scored a major financial success by bringing back Halloween, even if his trilogy gradually fell off a cliff with critics and audiences. A reported $400 million deal was struck to enable Green to do the same with the venerable Exorcist franchise, which has been making demonic friends since 1973, and the first fruits arrive in the form of this much derided reboot, reworking, legacy sequel whatever you want to call it. While the quality of the Exorcist sequels has been so laughably wayward, it’s hard to call Believer a disgrace to the brand that was shop-soiled from the start; it’s an odd venture to say the least, if not quite as odd as the legendary bonkerfest Exorcist II: The Heretic.
So we get a whole new entry point into the on-going struggle between good and evil, in one corner, king of the Mesopotamian wind demons Pazuzzu, and in the other corner, Leslie Odum Jr as Victor Fielding, a photographer whose pregnant wife is killed while on holiday in Haiti. Fielding choses between the survival of his wife and his unborn daughter, and franchise experts will know that this kind of devil’s bargain usually leads to buyer’s remorse further down the line and so it proves. Believer kicks into some kind of gear, or at least tapping into parental anxieties in the way that William Friedkin’s original did, when the action shifts 13 years later and Fielding’s daughter goes missing, alongside another teenage girl, for three days; could they have spent that unaccounted for time in hell, one character wonders? Either way, a no-hold-barred two-for-one exorcism of both girls is on the cards, with Ellen Burstyn and yes, spoiler alert, Linda Blair dragged back into this to provide pre and post match insights into how the struggle will pan out.
Hoping to attract a younger crowd, Believer drops much of what gave the Exorcist movies their flavour; the setting is vaguely Georgia/Savannah rather than Washington, the stern Catholic angle is played down in favour of a rag-tag exorcism team of random non-denominational religions. ‘I don’t believe in the question,’ is Fielding’s answer when asked about his own beliefs, but Believer’s title suggests that the central character arc is Fielding’s journey from cynic to adherent. In retrospect, 1973’s The Exorcist looks poorer as a film with each passing look; keying into social unrest and a conservative fear of the youth movement, it marked, like The Godfather and Jaws, a desire in cinema to reflect the content of trashy best-sellers, but it’s scary-face boo-ya appeal was of its time, with only the downbeat, disturbing but joltingly nasty 1990 sequel Legion managing to squeeze any more juice out of this vomit-favoured tube of toothpaste.
Yet The Exorcist: Believer isn’t quite as awful as the critics might suggest; like many films reviewed since the actors strike began, the usually unseen connection between legacy media actor access and positive reviews seems to have added additional obloquy to the poisoned pens of aging newspaper critics. Odum Jr does well to make Fielding a sympathetic entry point, Ann Dowd also adds some gravitas as a tormented nun, and there’s genuine frisson in bringing back legacy characters Chris and Regan McNeill for the first time since 1973, albeit in supporting roles. But The Exorcist: Believer preaches more to the converted than to new recruits; the sense of faux religious conviction which was the strongest point of the series is drowned out in a flurry of Halloween-cake make-up, geysers of vomit and easily snapped necks.