The Exorcist is a stone-cold classic. For fifty years, it’s held a special place in pop culture, renowned as one of the scariest and most iconic films of all time. William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece may not be a perfect movie, but it exists as such in moviegoers’ hearts and minds.
So how does a filmmaker follow up what’s regarded as the scariest movie ever? Doing so seems like an impossible job, but writer-director David Gordon Green is up for the task. His latest film, The Exorcist: Believer looks at faith and demonic possession through a modern lens.
Thirteen years ago, Victor’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) pregnant wife was crushed in an earthquake. Doctors miraculously saved their child Angela (Lidya Jewett), whom Victor has raised on his own ever since.
Victor and Angela have a tender bond and share everything with each other. Victor immediately realizes something is wrong when his daughter doesn’t return home one night. Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) seem to have vanished after wandering into the woods. The girls turn up three days later with no memories of what’s happened to them.
Things only get weirder once the girls return home. At first, it’s the usual haunted house cliches with lights flickering on and off and doors closing on their own. But once the girls start going into trances and violently acting out, the families seek medical attention.
Ann, one of Angela’s nurses, recognizes the child’s symptoms as the devil’s work. And she points Victor towards a woman who’s become an authority on exorcisms. To save Angela and Katherine, Victor must put his skepticism aside and accept he’s confronting evil supernatural forces.
There are a couple ways to approach rebooting an iconic franchise. Filmmakers can take the Star Wars: The Force Awakens route and replay the hits, giving fans a beat-for-beat remake of the original. Or, obliterate expectations and take the series in a bold new direction.
And these options are what makes director Green such an intriguing choice to helm this film. In 2018, he rebooted Halloween, crafting a bloodthirsty thrill ride that gave fans exactly what they wanted from the series. But his two Halloween sequels took the series in an unexpected direction, ultimately alienating fans.
Green takes the safer route this time and sticks to the series’ successful formula. For better and for worse, The Exorcist: Believer delivers everything you expect from an Exorcist movie.
It’s still a dark and disturbing popcorn flick that will scare audiences senseless, but The Exorcist’s shocking themes and blood-curdling visuals hit differently in 2023.
An entire generation of horror filmmakers have built upon The Exorcist’s bile-spewing foundation. We’ve already seen everything The Exorcist: Believer has to offer. More importantly, we’ve seen everything this film has to offer made fun of ad nauseam. Nothing drains the tension out of a scene like knowing you’ve seen the possessed little girl schtick endlessly parodied on The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Green spends time fleshing out Victor and Angela’s relationship before the scares begin. So, once supernatural elements creep into the story, there are genuine emotional stakes. It’s an effective storytelling tactic too many horror films can’t be bothered with. I appreciate how the film takes its time, making viewers care about the people at the heart of the chaos.
It helps to have an otherworldly talent like Odom Jr. driving the story. He grounds this tale of demonic horror in the palpable anguish of a father struggling to protect his daughter. Despite all the film’s supernatural elements, Green is most interested in exploring humanist themes about unity and people supporting one another. At its core, it tells a hopeful story of people finding the strength to confront their deepest shame and regrets. Angela’s possession forces Victor to confront his own inner demon.
The Exorcist: Believer does nothing to get out from beneath its predecessor’s shadow, but it’s not without its merits. The film still works well enough if you don’t go in expecting it to reinvent the wheel. It’s a joyfully twisted horror thriller with enough jump scares and gruesome visuals to haunt your nightmares.