The Exorcist: Believer


‘…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…’

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.


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  1. I’m not convinced that the original is soiled, although it certainly looks dated and has done for a while. I remember when it was re-released more than two decades ago, levitated by huge hype about how shocking, terrifying and banned it had been, and the friend I saw it with (as a first time watch for her) was seriously underwhelmed. But I guess that’s the problem with overhype as well as seeing its legacy and influence in an eternity of simulacra.

    It is silly of course, like most horror films. But green pea soup aside, it’s a crisis-of-faith film and Friedkin was deadly serious about that. With extra lashings of catholic guilt around Dimi’s dead mother. Maybe at the time, the impact on the collective psyche of the erosion and increasing irrelevance of organised religion hit home more than today. It’s certainly laced with a conservatism, a fear of the evils of less reverent and fast moving times, a spiritual vacuum that leaves way for evil to come in. But taken on these terms, even if the themes don’t have an immediacy for me personally, I think the film stands up well.

    That said, I have absolutely no interest in seeing the new one. I only wish Paul Schrader’s attempt hadn’t been so lumpen.

    • First time I saw the original in the cinema, it the same. Gloom, dread, seriousness, but zero scares. The big selling point was Catholic guilt and conservative fear of youth rebellion , but we were done with that by 78, and it’s only been shadow banning that has kept the reputation of this property through a turgid set of spin-offs, the third getting pass marks but only tangentially connected to the central story. The high seriousness of the first one was what made it work, but playing down the Catholic angle let’s the air out of this particular balloon, and the priest stuff is weak sauce here. And maybe it’s just Kermode’s schoolboy waffle about the first film that puts me off, but it feels diminished one way or another.

  2. Have talked with Alex on this issue and possibly you, but the acceptance of some sort of universal evil without a concurrent acceptance of a universal good completely baffles me. What if the demon just turns around to the hodge-podge eclectic group of non-believers and says “I don’t believe in you” and then tears their head off?
    Just a little consistency is what I want in a movie based on real world theology, no matter how much they’ve twisted it. But be consistent!

    • I think you have firmly identified the issue here. If the tag team of exorcists don’t have one belief, what kind of rules is Pazuzu king of the Mesopotamian wind demons playing along with? There should be a manual telling us how to deal with demonic infestation, for all languages and creeds.

      • Well, that’s the thing. One creed has to be right if it is going to work. Or they have to find out what does work, WHY it works and base a creed on that.
        But to come to a strictly Catholic based film franchise and suddenly turn it into a kumbaya fruit salad just doesn’t work. Not on a sustainable level anyway.

        And I don’t even know why I’m bothering. Everyone involved in these movies obviously doesn’t give it even 1 thought, so why should I give it two?

        • No, but I think you make a great point. Surely nobody watched the original film and said, well, that’s a problem for Catholics, so no need to worry about demonic possession, that’s their bag. The priest character is the most poorly drawn character in this movie; surely we can take an interest in religions other than our own?

          As I write these words, your final paragraph rings true. Why should we care if the people making the films don’t?

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