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Film review: The Exorcist: Believer

by
13 October 2023

Fifty years after The Exorcist, Stephen Brown views a sequel

© 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

From left: Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), and Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green

From left: Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), and Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) in The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Gre...

THE eminent film critic Mark Kermode has watched The Exorcist, released in 1973, more than 200 times. He has written books and articles, made documentaries about it, and continues, he says, to remain conscious of the transcendence and magic experienced on first viewing. I am not sure that he’ll feel as ecstatic about this 50th-anniversary sequel The Exorcist: Believer (Cert. 15).

The widowed Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr), over-protective of his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lydia Jewett), agrees to her visiting Katherine (Olivia O’Neill). The friends go into the woods and try summoning spirits. There are, shall we say, paranormal consequences. With Katherine happening to be Roman Catholic, you would think that would cue an immediate reprise of special effects from William Friedkin’s original version.

Sure, we get nods to it via almost subliminal gory shots, human and supernatural, as well as a similarly disturbing soundtrack (including, once again, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells). We even have Katherine’s parish priest making an appearance during a demonic episode, plus a wet-behind-the-ears younger cleric (E. J. Bonilla). But, half a century on, in the name of inclusivity and diversity, Hollywood has recognised Satan (going by the Mesopotamian name of Pazuzu in the Exorcist films) as a universal phenomenon. The ministry of deliverance is also exercised in the film by a voodoo-type practitioner from Haiti, where Victor’s wife had died, giving birth to Angela.

David Gordon Green, who before directing several follow-ups in the Halloween franchise, told heartbreaking tales, such as George Washington, about youngsters and their regrets in the face of tragedy or uncertainty. There is an element of this in his latest work: mixed-up kids overwhelmed and tormented. Whatever was evil in the woods impels Victor to enlist Chris MacNeil, someone who encountered this before. It is the actor Ellen Burstyn, reviving five decades later her role as mother of the possessed Regan (Linda Blair).

This new film starts examining whether evil can be attributable to demonic powers. This, like subsequent themes, however, is never satisfactorily explored. We still do not know or understand what motivates several characters by the end of the film, or the part that faith plays in the ways they perceive and conduct their lives. Has Chris, for example, taken on the mantle of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and is now tantamount to an exorcist herself? Such elusiveness and gaps in the plot clash badly with the cinéma vérité camerawork that gives the impression that we are getting fly-on-the wall comprehensive reportage.

It is entirely possible to read The Exorcist: Believer as commentary on our fractured world, not least the United States. When someone possessed is brought to Jesus (Matthew 12.22-28), he contrasts the work of the devil, diabolos (the Greek word translatable as “to divide”), with the unifying healing that the Spirit of God does for communities. Strong performances help to provide a touch of hopefulness to all that is disquieting in the picture: times when perfect love casts out fear. But lightening the utter horror found in the 1973 movie, however, is counterproductive. Doing so loses some of Kermode’s experience of the costly battle that the numinous has in overcoming evil.

Currently on release in UK cinemas

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