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“The Exorcist: Believer” demonstrates a healthy dose of reverence for the original without being afraid to rewrite the sacred text.

The Exorcist: Believer

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Let me clear the elephant in the room. Yes, I’ve seen the Rotten Tomatoes score (23% at the time of this writing). Yes, I’ve seen the dogpile of critical skewering, lambasting the film for being messy, uninspired, and unscary.

But I’m here to offer an alternate perspective.

If you’re hoping this 50-year-later legacy sequel will come close to rekindling the magic of one of the greatest horror films of all time, banish that thought. Unquestionably, the 1973 film directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, adapting his own 1971 novel of the same name, is an untouchable masterpiece.

Just like every single halfway-decent shark movie post-1975 is compared to the brilliance of Jaws, every demon possession/exorcism film after The Exorcist is compared, impossibly, to the gold standard.

Not only was The Exorcist flawlessly executed and genuinely horrifyingly terrifying, but it had the benefit of being truly and utterly surprising. At the time of its release, audiences had never seen anything like Friedkin’s ferocious dance with the devil. It notoriously left viewers shaken, even scarred by the lurid and unforgettable images on the big screen.

Fifty years later, the subgenre is so saturated that it feels like we’ve seen everything under the sun.

We’re no longer shocked by a sweet young girl turned sadistic purveyor of filth, obscenity, and moral corruption. We no longer gasp at the kind of brutal, effects-heavy exorcism scenes that permeate much of the genre.

While any attempt to ape the original will inevitably suffer in comparison, we still yearn for the nostalgic reminder of what we loved so much about The Exorcist. We hope to see the magic recreated but not strictly imitated.

And that’s a hell of a tall order.

If you’re open to watching this as a standalone film connected to but not bound by the baggage of its perfect predecessor, you may find much to love about Believer.

Opting for a sequel that takes place in the same universe rather than a remake was a wise choice. While it may not offer the shocks and legitimate scares of the original, I found it to be genuinely unnerving and foreboding from the jump.

The setup is effective, beginning with an emotional introduction to the film’s lead actor, Leslie Odom Jr.

The compelling Odom Jr. plays the widowed father, Victor, who loses his very pregnant wife in a catastrophic earthquake. After making an unthinkable choice, he’s now doing his best to single-handedly raise his thirteen-year-old daughter, Angela (a captivating Lidya Jewett).

Having never met her mother, Angela has a strong incentive to make contact with the spirit world, jumping at the chance to conduct a séance in the woods with her very religious best friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill).

Naturally, things do not go according to plan. The two girls disappear for three days, only to turn up in a barn miles away from home in a dreadful physical state. Concerns about the girls’ physical well-being soon give way to questions about their mental state as their behavior moves from strange to downright deranged.

As it becomes abundantly clear that what’s wrong with the girls is outside the expertise of medical professionals, skeptical non-believer Victor starts seeking help from whoever and wherever he can get it.

That help comes from a variety of unexpected sources, including his nosy neighbor, Ann, who happens to be a nurse at the hospital where Angela is being treated. She’s also harboring a secret past that included plans to become a nun before an unexpected pregnancy forced her out of the convent.

Ann is played by the remarkable Ann Dowd, who, let’s face it, is virtually incapable of not commanding every inch of the screen every minute she’s on it.

In a fun twist, Ann first suggests Victor reach out, not to an exorcist but rather to an expert in exorcisms — a best-selling author with real, firsthand experience.

I’ve seen ample criticism that the addition of The Exorcist’s Chris MacNeil, played once again by the dazzling Ellen Burstyn, is an unnecessary bit of pandering fan service.

Is MacNeil a critical character in the film’s plot development? Arguably, not really.

However, was it an absolute thrill for a rabid fan of the original like myself to see Burstyn once again take up the mantle of the beleaguered mom to the world’s most famous sacrificial lamb? Hell, yes.

I personally found her to be much more than a glorified cameo. I felt she brought some emotional gravitas and a compelling connection to the original without it feeling forced or trite. I loved her short but satisfying arc, which provided one of the film’s most exalted payoffs.

With Chris on board, the next step is to secure a man of the cloth to help exorcise the demons.

But in another twist, the Catholic church is too worried about a PR disaster to step in, and the priest they were counting on backs out at the last minute. Fortunately, however, Victor has brought reinforcements, representing a diversity of cultural and theological viewpoints.

This includes Ann, Victor’s spiritual friend Stuart (Danny McCarthy), and Stuart’s friend, the riveting African priestess Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili).

They are joined by Katherine’s devout parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles in a standout role; she’s complex and conveys maternal agony with gut-wrenching authenticity), and the argumentative Tony (Norbert Leo Butz).

Accompanying them is their pastor (Raphael Sbarge), who has experienced Katherine’s horrifying possession up close and personal — during a truly disturbing church service highly touted in the film’s trailers.

Eventually, the priest also has a change of heart and joins the climactic battle, but the Devil makes short work of him in one of Believer’s more satisfying bits of gruesomeness.

After a methodical, restrained buildup, the expected finale is every bit as intense, chaotic, and deliciously sinister as you’re hoping for.

It does require some patience to get there, and not every horror fan will be willing to indulge in the slow descent into hell.

It’s hard to argue, however, that the third act isn’t wildly fun and infinitely watchable, thanks to the spellbinding performances of its young actors, heaps of chilling imagery, impressive visual and makeup effects, and some powerful psychological horror with high emotional stakes.

A father’s agonizing choice at the birth of his daughter comes full circle in the most merciless of ways, and the ending delivers a power-packed punch of staggering nihilism and unforeseen hope.

While there are plenty of familiar beats in the inevitable exorcism scene, it also felt innovative in many ways — something that’s nigh impossible to do given how many times we’ve seen this sort of thing before.

Is there fair criticism to be laid at the feet of Believer? Absolutely. It falls well short of a religious experience.

It’s not terribly scary, despite the sound department working overtime and a heavy investment in jump scares. That alone can be a turnoff for many horror fans. But I also wouldn’t call this derivative or dull.

What it lacks in genuine terror, it makes up for in committed performances — especially from its two teen victims — and a pervasive eerie and sinister atmosphere.

Green loves to explore the nature of evil, the way it spreads and infects those it touches, and how it desecrates a community. It’s the crux of his Halloween trilogy treatment that many took umbrage with, especially by the time Ends rolled around.

He once again goes to the well of big ideas in Believer, attempting to make this about more than a simple possession tale.

Green does his damnedest to differentiate this film from the flock of virtually indistinguishable Exorcist disciples.

I’m not going to lie; it gets messy toward the end as the script written by Green with Peter Sattler (from a story by Scott Teems and Danny McBride) explores complicated ideas of faith and the nature of belief.

But, for me, it’s the interesting kind of messy that’s fun to watch and still admirable for the heft of its effort even when it seems to contradict its own ideology.

It deviates in a refreshing way from the standard formula of the Devil versus the great Catholic savior, a warrior of the powerful patriarchy who defeats evil by the sheer force of the Christian faith.  I loved the choice of neutering the Catholic priest and opting for a non-traditional community exorcism, uniting multiple people from different faiths to battle the insidious dual possession.

It’s a bold direction that won’t resonate with everyone. But I found it smart, inventive, and thought-provoking.

If you’re looking for a reason to reaffirm your disgust for Green’s artistic vision or the Blumhouse moneymaking machine, you’ll find plenty to satiate your bloodlust with Believer. Those still angry at Green for the direction he took the Halloween franchise in can hate-watch Believer with righteous indignation.

But if you can leave your martyr’s cross at the door, The Exorcist: Believer is a pretty fun time at the movies — a competently made horror film that takes big swings and lands more than it fumbles.

Will many of you disagree with me? Undoubtedly. I expect no shortage of passionate disbelievers. But I’ll be damned if I’ll concede that there’s not plenty here worthy of praise.

If you are interested in experiencing this film, it’s worthy of the theatrical experience, benefiting immensely from a big screen and a game crowd. My audience at the early screening had a blast, and the theater was filled with plenty of laughs (during the many surprising, darkly comedic moments), screams, and gasps in all the right places.

In a sea of naysayers, a healthy dose of skepticism is understood and expected. But if you’re willing to take a leap of faith, The Exorcist: Believer may surprise you in the best way.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3.5

All images courtesy of Universal Pictures. 

4 Comments

4 Records

  1. on October 6, 2023 at 10:11 pm
    Daniel Smith wrote:
    Utter disgrace Honestly the movie awful. It was a cash grab. It’s nothing more than another generic exorcism movie.
    Reply
    • on October 8, 2023 at 8:04 pm
      Stephanie Malone wrote:

      I definitely respect your opinion. I felt differently about it, but I realize it’s a very polarizing film from a very polarizing filmmaking/studio. Still love you and appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

      Reply
  2. on December 13, 2023 at 1:53 pm
    David R. Moss, MD wrote:
    Jump Pleasure: Ellen Burstyn & Linda Blair! I enjoyed it! I felt that your excellent Review is “Spot On”! The use of Ellen Burstyn & Linda Blair, connected the Film’s but allowed “Believer” to stand on its own! You have a unique, interesting and relatable writing style. I’m very pleased that I found this Website!
    Reply
    • on December 15, 2023 at 10:42 am
      Stephanie Malone wrote:

      Thank you! It’s been a very divisive movie, and many have questioned my judgement, but I stand by my belief that it’s a solid horror film if you stop comparing it to the original. Also, we are very glad you found us as well!

      Reply

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