The scariest thing for fans of The Exorcist franchise is that the 2023 — The Exorcist: Believer is a “requel.” Writer/Director David Gordon Green is no stranger to this subgenre of film as that’s what he and Danny McBride did with the new Halloween trilogy. While the first film in that franchise was a solid re-entry to Haddonfield, the sequent films were less than stellar and in some instances — hated. So it’s understandable for Exorcist fans to be concerned about this creative team helming a new chapter in the Exorcist franchise and worrying that the franchise might suffer the same fate as the aforementioned Halloween films.
Thankfully, Green manages to deliver a very solid Exorcist requel with The Exorcist: Believer – largely because it doesn’t feel too stuck in the past. Unlike how 2018’s felt like a paint-by-numbers Halloween movie, The Exorcist: Believer does feel a little different. That’s not to say the film diverts too far from what the franchise has been about. However, within its story of parents attempting to find ways to save their children after they become possessed by a vicious demon, there are some interesting modernizations within its themes, characters, and performances that make this entry stand out.
The Exorcist: Believer takes viewers into a small-town that is a tight-knit community which makes the looming presence of the Catholic Church feel less strong. Perspectives and arcs surrounding waning faith and believing in something bigger than yourself remain; however, the film feels much more grounded in how it brings together a small community to help expel this demon from these girls. There’s something special about seeing small town folk work together to defeat this greater evil. It’s a huge aspect of the film’s heart and a big reason the third act has such a grand and emotional pull. Plus, the performances generally elevate the themes and personal arcs of these characters.
Overall, the lead performances bring out the strong emotion and even humor of this script and will keep you hooked through the very end. Unfortunately, most of the side characters don’t have enough screen time to be memorable or for viewers to emotionally invest in. If certain characters involved in the finale had stronger or more meaningful interactions with the main characters they could’ve left a stronger impact. Sadly, they don’t and ultimately could be forgotten entirely. Thankfully, though there are two major standouts that really drive home the emotion and intrigue of the film’s themes.
The first is Leslie Odom Jr. as Victor – the father of one of the possessed girls – the central figure of this film’s debate about faith. Odom does a great job working with the material in Victor’s arc – carrying lingering grief over past tragedies and being standoffish to the reality of the situation. Viewers will connect with the emotion of his character and the concern that fate is simply toying with him again. The best performance of the film is easily Ann Dowd as Victor’s neighbor, Ann. She does such a phenomenal job delivering relatable and, at times, insightful perspectives on faith that encapsulate and elevate the film’s themes. She’s a huge reason the ending has an emotional punch and she’ll easily be a fan-favorite because of the unexpectedly heroic feel of her arc. Ann excellently embodies that small town hero rising to the occasion and Dowd does a fantastic job evoking that.
The Exorcist: Believer does have some original elements that do make it a likable new era for this franchise, but in terms of the overall story and scares, it can be lacking. While it’s nice that Green recognizes that The Exorcist isn’t Halloween and doesn’t try to overemphasize the quantity of scares, you do end up wishing he didn’t take such a minimalistic approach with the horror. Don’t get me wrong, the strong emphasis on the story and characters is more fitting to what the original is and there are some strong jump scares and suspenseful sequences. There are even some gut-wrenching twists within the character arcs – namely Victor – and bloody bits that feel at home with the franchise’s brand of horror. But the film is way too lax for modern horror and it ends up being a little disappointing on that front. Also, while the demonic voice is a staple for this franchise, it’s been so done to death in parodies and pop culture that it’s definitely time for a refresh since it’s just not as scary as it used to be.
For the most part, the central storyline is fine. Honestly, it’s pretty basic for this franchise and overstuffed sub-genre but does find good ways to add new compelling elements to the formula through some culturally driven expansions of the spiritual lore and more modern perspective. Plus, the film does have great moments that touch on the emotion of the characters surrounding these two young children being torn apart by this demon. The build-up to the final act is also pretty good and makes the final exorcism have this great anticipation and epic feel that’s hard not to love. It’s a confidence every fan wants to have for a rebooted franchise and it effectively sucks audiences into the final stretch.
However, the film does suffer from not giving enough information about the practices and spiritual elements of the film – resulting in it glossing over things way too often. At times, the film feels like it’s making up or changing rules as it goes along and can be tough to follow in terms of lore. This ultimately creates some damning plot holes and a sense of confusion when it comes to the film’s finale – which is a chaotic mess at times. Despite there being a good atmosphere and a strong twist for Victor, the final exorcism sequence is trying too hard to embed unnecessary twists and turns and creates a lot of confusion surrounding why things happen. Plus, the ending does feel very sudden – to the point where it feels like no one knew how they wanted to end the film – and it’s a reflection of the lack of depth the film can have with most of its characters.
Yet, those thematic elements and performances do leave the film on a satisfying enough note to have fans in good spirits as the credits roll. Also, even with the film trying to establish a new path for the franchise, it still finds time to pay homage to its predecessor. There are some fun lines and visual nods that do pay homage to the original film in ways that fans will appreciate. However, the return of Ellen Burstyn will be a hot point of debate for fans because of how she’s used.
While it’s absolutely refreshing to see Burstyn back in this franchise and working excellently with some solid story material for Chris, her time in the film is painfully short. The use and treatment of Chris in The Exorcist: Believer isn’t as bad as what the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre requel did with Sally Hardesty’s return, but it’s still utterly disappointing. It’s far from the respectful storyline given to Laurie Strode in Green’s Halloween films and will undoubtedly be a major gripe for fans.
The Exorcist: Believer certainly boasts potential for a special new chapter of The Exorcist franchise to be in the works with its intriguing themes and strong performances, but still has a lot of work to do. Green definitely needs to up the scare factor and deliver a cleaner story that genuinely stands out and starts to effectively build out a universe that’s worthy of exploring over the course of a few films. The Exorcist: Believer has the goods to be a very solid horror ride but isn’t without its noticeable flaws.