Review: ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ fails to compel a terrifying sequel

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In the 50 years since its release, “The Exorcist” has remained one of the scariest movies of all time. With a mixed bag of sequels — ranging from the cult classic “Exorcist III,” the forgettable prequels “The Beginning” and “Dominion,” along with “The Exorcist II: The Heretic,” which is considered one of the worst sequels ever made — none have come close to capturing the horror that the first film brought upon audiences since Christmas 1973. As with the new entry in the franchise, “The Exorcist: Believer,” the franchise gets the legacy sequel treatment. 

Contributed photo by Universal Studios

David Gordon Green, fresh off of directing the polarizing “Halloween” legacy sequel trilogy, kicks off his new “Exorcist” trilogy with “Believer,” featuring not one possessed girl, but two. When Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) mysteriously go missing and are found three days later, they quickly become possessed by a demonic entity. Running out of options, Angela’s father Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) seeks out Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of Regan from the first film, for her help in exorcising the demon out of both girls before it’s too late. 

If you think something terrifying can be done with that premise, sadly the film disappoints. The main problem with “Believer” is that it plays it safe, coasting too much on showing the same demonic horror everyone saw half a century ago. Once again there are head-turnings, deep voices, cursing and all the other things we’ve seen a million times. There are even forced quotes from the first movie, which I wouldn’t mind so much if the script had any new lines that were just as creepy. 

Part of the reason why these scares are lesser is because the movie doesn’t have any tension. “Believer” doesn’t share the slow pace and creepy filmmaking of “The Exorcist,” instead feeling rushed and all over the place. 

The style is often too conventional or distracting, especially in the camerawork. The cinematography doesn’t do much to create unease, either being simple close-up shots of the characters or trying to have a “cinematic” feel. The drone establishing shots and slight camera movements look fine, but it doesn’t fit the realism that makes an “Exorcist” movie effective. 

The same goes for the editing, which goes back and forth in having quick cuts or simple techniques like cutting during a conversation, both of which fail to create tension. Oftentimes when Victor is taking pictures for a photography job, the film follows the hand-held, quick-cut style to simulate him using a camera, usually to try to make the audience tense. Instead, it’s distracting.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there are also fake-out jump scares, including a guy touching a person’s shoulder or a loud thud. It’s all that you expect and just as annoying, especially for an “Exorcist” sequel to be doing this. 

But what I think is the reason this film doesn’t work is how underdeveloped it feels. Green’s and Peter Sattler’s script is incredibly weak, positing interesting ideas that are barely explored. Katherine’s parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Webster alum Norbert Leo Butz), are devout Protestants while Victor lost his faith after Angela’s mother died. The film seems to set up a potential conflict between their religious views, which ultimately get sidetracked by the many other plotlines that happen in “Believer.”

In fact, Miranda and Tony barely get any development, with the movie focusing more on Victor than the other characters, which isn’t good since the film has an ensemble cast. Because of that lack of focus, the actors don’t get much to do with their characters. They end up giving serviceable performances, despite how talented most of them are. Ann Dowd plays a religious neighbor who helps with the exorcism, but her smaller role in “Hereditary” is meatier compared to this. 

The biggest insult “Believer” gives, besides being a bland sequel to an iconic horror movie, is in its treatment of Ellen Burstyn. Playing her role for the first time in 50 years, Burstyn does her best to make it work, having to play the older, reluctant mentor-type who lost contact with Regan and made a career becoming an exorcist. However, the direction Chris’ plotline takes is so laughable and disrespectful that it makes the movie worse.

Despite how flawed “Believer” is as a horror movie and a sequel, I have to give it some credit. I actually felt uneasy when Angela and Katherine slowly became possessed. Jewett’s and O’Neill’s performances were effective in making their characters creepy, as I didn’t know how far the movie was going to go in showing the demon corrupting them. 

I also have to respect Green for introducing a new twist with the possession plot and going through with it. Introduced far later than it should’ve been, the parents are forced by the demon to choose which one of their daughters will live while the other is condemned to Hell (think of it like a less scary “Sophie’s Choice”). 

The fact that the film goes through with that idea, especially with how tame it was beforehand, is extremely ballsy. It makes for the only interesting thing that happens in this movie, even if the ending comes off tone-deaf with a positive message about faith and unity right after a depressing turn. 

That aspect doesn’t help the movie though, since the underdeveloped story leads to that idea not being as impactful as it should be. Because of that, the movie fails to live up to the scary nature of the first film, never being as terrifying or compelling. It doesn’t even live up to being memorably bad, never coming as close as “The Heretic”, which at least had creatively insane ideas like blinking light hypnotherapy and James Earl Jones in a locust costume. 

Instead, “The Exorcist: Believer” is incredibly mediocre. I was never left bored during it, yet I did feel constant disappointment in how half-baked its themes and characters were. It makes me scared of how bad the later entries in the trilogy will be, and makes me wish one thing: Please, David Gordon Green, for the love of God, do not bring Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair back into this mess. 

Rated R for some violent content, disturbing images, language and sexual references.

This writer supports the SAG-AFTRA strike.

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Ethan Tarantella
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