I don’t even know where to start with this one.
Actually, yeah I do: go watch the two season of The Exorcist TV show, on Hulu, right now. The show takes place in the world of the first Exorcist film and serves as a far better sequel, with far better worldbuilding and better horror, than anything in this movie.
“Tubular Bells” should gain sentience so it can sue to be taken out of The Exorcist: Believer.
Or we could start with a confession: until yesterday I had never heard of the “Fear of God” clothing line. Never seen anything by Jerry Lorenzo. Never come across it in a store. (This means nothing, I am not a person who follows fashion.) On the way to the theater I noticed someone wearing a hoodie that said “Fear of God” on it. I assumed it was some sort of faith-based clothing line, and turned the corner for the theater. Then, after the movie, mulling how I was going to talk about this atrocity, I ran down to my train and looked up—to see that the person right in front of me was wearing a hoodie that said “Fear of God” on it.
This was when I realized two things: (a) I must have missed a trend, and (b) some powerful cosmic force was mocking me for sitting through The Exorcist: Believer by shoving the name of Mark Kermode’s excellent Exorcist documentary in my face, twice.
And speaking of Mark Kermode, if you love The Exorcist as much as I do, and half as much as Mark Kermode does (nobody loves The Exorcist as much as Mark Kermode does) check out his review of the movie, which is even angrier than mine.
The other thing with me? I don’t offend easy. Human suffering offends me. The wanton destruction of life, the desecration of consent, bullying, terrorism, apartheid, cages, oppression, wasted potential.
Those offend me.
But here, in the safety of pop culture? You’re reading words written by a person who watched Faces of Death in elementary school. Whose favorite movie in ninth grade was Midnight Cowboy. Who laughed uproariously during Audition.
But this movie might have offended me.
I’m a person who loves the first Exorcist. I think The Exorcist III is amazing. The TV show is one of my favorite works of fiction ever.
And for this movie to glop into the world of The Exorcist like… like underdone rice pudding, with no perspective, no point of view, no voice, nothing to say, no opinions on what went before, no sense of history—I’d say it’s like the empty-headed orange cat of The Exorcist franchise, but I love orange cats!
I’m gonna spoil—actually, no I’m not, there’s nothing here to spoil—but since I take my job seriously, here, above the spoiler line:
The performances are good. I hope the two girls playing the possessed Angela Fielding and Katherine had a great time. The depiction of religion is surprisingly even-handed, without ever putting all the chips down on “religion is right and science is wrong”, or “this one particular denomination is the correct one”. And there are a few really good ideas in here. You can imagine the better movie, trapped inside this one, scrawling the words “Rewrite the fucking script!” on the celluloid in a desperate cry for help.
Here, hang on, let me cry unto thee, imagine I’m possessed and these words are appearing on my fucking forehead:
E X O R C I S T I S O N H U L U
B E N D A N I E L S I S R E A L L Y G O O D I N I T
Sorry. But even to get into the decent ideas I need to talk about spoilers.
Victor and Sorenne Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr. and Tracey Graves) travel to Haiti while Sorenne is pregnant with a daughter she’s named Angela. Sorenne tragically dies, and we flash ahead to 13 years later, where middle-schooler Angela (Lidya Jewett) is depressed and lonely because she misses her mother. Her dad is a bit overbearing—albeit for understandable reasons—and she doesn’t have too much of a social life. She and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) finally manage to escape to the woods for an afternoon to try to speak to the spirit of Angela’s mother, but it’s clear the girls see this as a fun bonding Bloody Mary-type game.
Three days later, a farmer finds them shivering and traumatized in his barn. They have no memory of the last 72 hours.
This is a good set-up. The clash between the families, with Victor as the slightly bitter skeptic who trusts nothing supernatural since the loss of his wife, and Katherine’s parents, Miranda and Tony (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) as fairly strict, traditional Southern Baptist churchgoers, is a great start. The prickliness between the families is good, the early attempts to search are good. But it all goes to shit as soon as the “scary” stuff starts.
One of the strengths of The Exorcist is how is builds horror from everyday details and recognizable human emotions. But in The Exorcist: Believer, nothing makes any sense. Victor’s just left alone by the police after the initial conversation—no other family is contacted, he seemingly has but one friend.
That one friend is Pentecostal, and he and Victor have a standing gym date. Those are the only two things we know about him. At one point this friend has a rootwork healer come to bless Angela’s room—but they do this without Victor’s permission, when he’s not home. This dude just invites a whole team of healers over! And the reason Victor knows something’s weird, when he gets home, is that they’ve left his front door open? Which, it’s a nice thought, to bless the room, but did it not occur to them that this poor frantic man will come home, and think the open door means his traumatized daughter has come back?? Or that, horror of horrors, maybe a kidnapper has brought her back, and is in the house??? Or, possibly more relevant, did it not occur to them not to go into someone’s locked house without their OK to perform a religious ceremony?
The Exorcist: Believer constantly makes tiny, meaningless reference to the first film. It’s like spending a whole movie with the Leo DiCaprio Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meme beaming back at you from the screen. There are a lot of them, but I’ll just dig into one: halfway through the movie, it’s revealed that Ann Dowd’s character, Ann, was almost a nun. She decided to have one last adventure before her vows, got pregnant, had an abortion, and then didn’t go through with Holy Orders but became a nurse instead. This fact is used to show the audience that whatever’s possessing Angela is real (how could the demon know about the abortion, and the name Ann had chosen to take as a nun?) and she then uses it to convince the skeptical Victor to get spiritual help for Angela, which is why he contacts Chris MacNeil in the first place.
Then, it’s used a third time, in a deeply stupid way. In Oppenheimer, the famous “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” line is dropped into a context that is simultaneously hilarious, bonkers, ridiculous, and, depending on your religious persuasion, offensive. (As a perfectly harmless New Deal Democrat, I was not offended.) When the line recurs an hour later, it adds a new layer of nuance to it. Using the reference twice works beautifully to add to this portrait of an extremely complex man. The Exorcist: Believer, on the other hand, slaps an iconic line down on the table about an hour and a half into its runtime: in response to the demon, once again, mocking Ann about her abortion, sneers “Did the power of Christ… compel you?”
And then she falls apart and has to tap out of her role in the exorcism. (Which I’ll get into below.)
Here’s why this offends me: when Pazuzu wants to shake Father Karras’ faith, it mimics his recently deceased mother, knowing that the priest feels guilty for choosing a life that left his poor old mama impoverished and alone. When the demon wants to fuck with Det. Kinderman in Exorcist III (at least in the extended edition), it does so by appearing as Kinderman’s friend, Father Karras. And when it wants to torment Father Tomas in the TV show, it appears as the college sweetheart he still has feelings for, knowing this will rattle his teetering dedication to celibacy.
All of that makes sense.
Why the hell would the demon ask a nurse, who left her vocation twenty years ago after the abortion, if the power of Christ compelled her to end the pregnancy? Given that she didn’t take her vows, because of the abortion? And that she ended up on a whole other path? And the demon already revealed that it knew about the abortion! It already threw that in her face! So why would this be the thing that undoes her now? She knows it knows! Now, if it went into some sort of detail about how the soul of the baby was lost, or that no amount of penance would be enough, or that she herself would go to hell for murder (inaccurate theology on all counts, but it would work to unsettle her in the moment), any of those tactics could have actually built on the reveal of the abortion, and preyed upon her mind like the examples I cited above. But no! The movie just goes for the cheap line drop!
Look, demons may be many things, chief among them not real, but they are not lazy.
The movie also makes a fun choice to vilify a homeless community! It makes a point of having Katherine’s hotheaded dad, who’s already on the edge of being a stereotype of a hyper-religious southern good ol’ boy, flip out at the cops for not interrogating the unhoused community who are living in the woods where the girls disappeared. But instead of stopping there, and leaving us with kind of a cheap portrait of a conservative dad, it gives us a scene where Victor, portrayed as the more reasonable one, goes to a soup kitchen to ask if anyone’s seen anything. Two of the men engage with him, and they refer to Angela “looking for her mama”—meaning they must have overheard some of the ritual, right? But then they heavily imply that the girls were assaulted by member of the camp, because what we need in this year of Our Lord Billy Friedkin 2023, after years of pandemic and skyrocketing rents and economic instability and manufactured migrant crises and very real refugee crises, is to imply that homeless people are rapists.
Did I mention that this fucking movie isn’t even scary? Yeah, I know, nothing scares me, I say it in every review, but I do obviously appreciate the structure and atmosphere that good or even just decent horror movies create. Just recently, The Boogeyman had some great moments. Evil Dead Rise. No One Will Save You, which I reviewed last week. Hell, All of Us Strangers—a romantic drama starring Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal as lovelorn gay men adrift in London—had more suspenseful scenes than this one. There was not a single moment when I felt any shred of fright, a prickle on my neck, arm hairs standing up, nervousness, nothing.
IT’S A FUCKING EXORCIST MOVIE.
Why is it called “Believer”??? Is that in reference to Angela’s mother, who believes in the blessing of protection that is put on her unborn daughter by a Vodou manbo? Is it Victor, since the movie half-heartedly implies that his lack of faith is a spanner in the works? Is it Chris MacNeil, who has an entire speech about how all cultures have exorcism rituals, and that it’s the ritual that matters, and people’s faith in it, that matters, because she doesn’t seem to think any of it’s objectively real, which kinda makes her not exactly a believer? Is it Ann Dowd’s wannabe nun Ann, or Dr. Beehibe, or Stuart the Pentecostal, or Miranda and Tony the Baptists, all of whom belong to different faiths, but none of whom are the main characters of the film?
It can’t be the girls cause they’re just pawns!
Which is my other real anger here. The Exorcist TV series (take a shot) featured Kat and Kelsey Rance, Verity, Caleb, and Truck—all kids who were touched in one way or another by the horrors of possession. And all of them were given voices, opinions, agency, and character arcs. These two are given nothing. Angela misses her mom and wants to feel connected to her, and is punished for that by possession. Katherine… is friends with Angela. Neither of them have any personality. We never even get to see the inside of Katherine’s room until after she’s been taken over.
What the movie does instead is give a dopey line to Chris MacNeil about how she wasn’t allowed to watch her daughter’s exorcism “Because I wasn’t part of their damned patriarchy, I guess” which, no, it’s because in the world of these films, the Devil is probably real, exorcisms are brutal, and she would have put herself and Regan at terrible risk if she was in the room with them. As it was both priests died saving Regan, and then Regan got attacked again in Exorcist II!
Instead the movie trots Ellen Burstyn out and implies in the marketing that she’s become an exorcist. What she’s actually become is a self-taught freelance anthropologist. She wrote a book about Regan’s exorcism, which drove her daughter away, and now she studies different cultures’ approaches to exorcism and seemingly travels around giving moral support to afflicted people, all the while hoping that Regan will talk to her again. Which is cool! But after all that buildup, and breaking out “Tubular Bells”, and everything—the second she’s in the room with a demon she’s completely outmatched, stabbed in the eyes with a crucifix, and spends the rest of the movie in a hospital bed, cosplaying as Black-Star-Video-David-Bowie.
Now, you know what happens in… The Exorcist TV show? (another shot! You lucky duck.) Please if you haven’t watched it skip down cause I want everyone to watch and I don’t want to spoil it.
I’m serious, now. Major spoilers ahead for the vastly superior Exorcist TV series.
We learn, partway through the series, that the woman we’ve known as Angela Rance (played by the mighty Geena Davis) is in fact Regan MacNeil all grown up. In the show’s universe, her mother also wrote a tell-all book, and Angela stopped speaking to her over it. When Angela’s daughter Kelsey escapes her own exorcism, Chris MacNeil (played by the mighty Sharon Gless) shows up to help. (She’s the one character in the show who gets the classic lamppost-cab-Exorcist-shot homage, and here it’s actually an interesting riff.) She and Angela gradually, kinda, sorta, make amends. Regan’s resentment is made real, Chris’ sorrow at the estrangement is made real, it all has weight, and they start to come back together over several episodes. Except then tl;dr, Angela gets possessed—she pulls a Karras and lures the demon out of Kelsey and into her own body—and murders Chris. Which sucks, but at least Chris is given a real terrifying horror-movie ending that way, instead of being built up like she’s a badass in all the trailers and then taken out in her first demonic confrontation. In Believer, Regan is actually even more objectified than she ever was in the original. Her death and/or damnation are used to toy with Chris, and her love is held out like a trophy to be won by her mother. There’s no conversation between the two women, no reconciliation, no sense of a relationship being mended. Rather than sticking some mealymouthed reference to “the patriarchy” into the script, the show actually gives all four women complex characters and motivations and backstory and connection, retroactively deepening the story of the first Exorcist film.
The thing a sequel is supposed to do.
Now I do want to talk about the one really interesting thing the movie does, and why it pisses me off too.
The exorcism itself is given a lot of screentime. (It’s only the last 15 minutes of the original movie, and I think even less in Exorcist III—William Peter Blatty didn’t want to include an exorcism in that one at all.) And what’s potentially cool about it is that it brings all the film’s characters together. Nurse Ann, the would-be nun/still devout Catholic; Stuart, the Pentecostal; Dr. Beehibe, the rootwork healer; Katherine’s parents and their Baptist minister, Don Revans; and Victor, the skeptic, all come together to use different methods to exorcise the girls. We’ve got two different type of Protestantism, rootwork, and, when the Vatican refuses to approve the exorcism, Ann’s priest Father Maddox essentially deputizes her to handle the Catholic bits. (Which no one would ever do, exorcism is a highly specific rite, you have to train for it, but whatever that’s one of the smallest problems in the movie.)
The idea of an interfaith exorcism is thrilling to me. Also some moments in the film itself, the way the characters learn from each other, make room for each other, and start accepting each other’s practices is genuinely cool. I don’t think I’ve seen this in an exorcism movie before, really—there’s a hint of it in Exorcist II but it’s handled terribly—and what was great was that each time I thought the movie was going to give one faith precedence over the others, it instead made a point of showing that all had their strengths. The best of these, and the moment when the film showed what it could have been, was when Father Maddox decides to chuck his career with the Church out the window and go rogue. He comes in at a particularly perilous moment, begins the Catholic Rite so familiar to fans of these movies, and, for a moment, everyone else defers to him. The relief among the characters is palpable: finally a real priest is here. And I was all ready to get very, very angry at the film for implying that Catholicism would win the day—when the demon possessing the girls twisted his head around and snapped his neck.
As he thuds to the floor the shock and horror that crashes over everyone is the closest the film gets to invoking the dark spirit of the original.
Look, I wanted this movie to be good. I wanted it to justify its existence after the cancellation of the (take a shot) TV show. I wanted Ellen Burstyn to kick ass, and I wanted an awesome new trilogy, but this movie wasted its potential. And I haven’t even gotten into the way it uses abortion as a plot point, how much more potential there was in forcing the families to work together, how it kinda nodded toward Southern culture but never committed, how much more hay it could have made of the relationship between Victor and Chris. I haven’t even talked about the ending, where it’s implied that an innocent little girl is dragged to hell because of her dad’s mistake. Or how seemingly only one person ends up taking the fall for a disparate group of people performing an exorcism that leads to multiple deaths. Or how Ann Dowd is given a speech about how time will heal everything when it super won’t in this case.
If you’re going to tackle this franchise let the power of thoughtful filmmaking compel you, next time.