clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Angela Fielding and Katherine in The Exorcist: Believer sitting back to back with their faces up and bloody upside down crosses carved into their foreheads Image: Universal Pictures

Filed under:

The Exorcist: Believer abandons the core idea that makes the series great

By getting rid of God, Believer loses its grasp on evil, too

Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

There are exorcism movies and Exorcist movies, and the two have never really been the same thing.

While movies about possession were around long before William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, few felt so grand or captured the public imagination in the same way as The Exorcist and its direct followers. Exorcist movies have always been more ambitious than their exorcism cousins, taking on thematic topics far bigger than the demonic activity at the center of their plot. They’ve been about loss of faith, technology versus the supernatural, collective fear and societal decline, and even the evils of colonialism. But The Exorcist: Believer, David Gordon Green’s 2023 Exorcist movie, takes the series in the opposite direction, tightening its focus to possession only. In the process of stripping the series down to essentials, Green and co-writer Peter Sattler have made the most boring, uninspired version of The Exorcist imaginable: a regular old exorcism movie.

Unlike its previous Exorcist series counterparts, Believer doesn’t center on an exorcist at all. Instead, the movie mostly follows Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), the single father of Angela (Lidya Jewett), who gets possessed along with her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill). The two girls start the movie by lying to their respective parents about their evening plans, then venturing off into the woods to an abandoned house to perform a makeshift seance so Angela can talk to her dead mother. The seance goes horribly wrong, we’re told, but not really shown. The girls pop up three days later, covered with cuts and acting strangely — one girl turning lights on and off, the other shouting in the middle of church.

Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles holding Olivia Mercum in church in an image from Exorcist: Believer Image: Universal Pictures

That’s more or less the last time the girls get to be real characters in the movie. Rather than focusing on possession or its victims, Believer largely tracks Victor as he runs all over town trying to figure out what’s wrong with his daughter, then trying to find people of various faiths to exorcise her.

Gone are the iconic moments of the original movie, like priests and doctors investigating Regan as she performs increasingly disturbing vulgarities to shock the people around her, or profane God and the church. Those are replaced by momentary glimpses of the girls crawling around on the floor like regular children, making growling noises, cursing briefly, or telling people facts the girls couldn’t possibly know. Even the other characters in the movie don’t seem too terribly disturbed by this tame behavior.

Green inserts flashes of some awful-seeming, more twisted version of possession — the black-and-white vision that filled advertisements ahead of the movie. But we never see that version of the story come to fruition — there are only snippets of it, set off by blasts of music. It’s hard to know how these inserts relate to the movie’s plot, but as it stands, they feel like windows into a better, scarier, and more interesting version of the movie, and completely out of step with the version we actually got. The minor hints of demonic activity all build toward an exorcism that’s the worst and most damning part of Believer.

It isn’t particularly surprising that Believer’s biggest issue is its exorcism scene. That’s been true of every entry in the series since the first. Unlike other exorcism movies that build toward their demonic evacuations like a grand finale, Exorcist sequels have largely treated their exorcism scenes as obligations, grafted-on set-pieces that border on silly and come out of nowhere. That’s a problem in its own right, but it’s a better problem to have than boredom. What makes the series great and unique is what surrounds these exorcisms — challenging, thoughtful movies. Believer’s greatest sin isn’t that it all leads to an exorcism, but rather that the exorcism it builds to is boring. The movie is 90 minutes of bland buildup to a scene that’s somehow even more generic and less exciting than what came before it.

A girl (Olivia O’Neill) is tied to a chair while possessed by a demon with many people around her trying to exorcise the demon from her Image: Universal Pictures

The spirit possessing the girls never identifies itself, and because the movie focuses more on the parents than the girls, we never actually understand how much danger they’re in, or what the stakes are. The spirit throws a few things around, but nothing about its pedestrian behavior ever feels particularly dangerous or scary. Most of the exorcism is just flashing lights and exposing the deep, dark secrets of the underwritten parents, like how Victor wishes his wife had survived instead of his then-unborn daughter. It never feels like a supernatural evil is at work in the room or threatening anyone’s life at all. The exorcism scene reads like a minorly confrontational therapy session, or a pretty bad family fight. It’s commendable that Green completely drops the standard cookie-cutter tropes and tenets of these kinds of scenes from other rote exorcism movies. Problem is, he has nothing to replace them with.

Green seems thoroughly uncomfortable with everything that makes an Exorcist movie an Exorcist movie. Pazuzu, the malevolent instigator of evil at the center of the franchise, is noticeably absent from this movie. Even more strikingly, Green seems averse to acknowledging religion at all, particularly Catholicism.

Lidya Jewett in The Exorcist: Believer standing close to a window making a face while possessed by a demon Image: Universal Pictures

The Exorcist: Believer repeatedly mentions how demons and possession show up in every major world religion, and how Victor needs to find a variety of priests and faith leaders to try to cleanse Angela and Katherine. But again, no specifics make their way into Green and Sattler’s script. That feels like a misguided attempt at vague cultural inclusion, but it misplaces a core appeal of the series, which historically uses Catholic trappings as a lens for focusing on universally interesting and important questions about life. Dropping the specific identity and tradition the Exorcist series is built on means Believer also loses what makes the series uniquely scary.

The worst victim of all this flattening of the series is also one of Believer’s primary selling points: Ellen Burstyn, who starred in the original Exorcist and reprises her role as Chris MacNeil. But she’s brought back like the movie’s only religious icon, seemingly to add legitimacy to the ideas of universal evil and universal faith, and the claim that the only true solution to any of these problems is using exorcism rituals from all cultures.

That approach makes Believer feel like an attempt at a post-God Exorcist movie, one that suggests that everyone has generic faith of some kind. But that approach makes the movie’s evil feel equally generic. Believer broadens its religious world so much that faith, evil, and God no longer mean anything at all.

A girl lays in a hospital bed while possessed in Exorcist: Believer Image: Universal Pictures

In an attempt to move the series past God, Green makes Believer and its evil feel out of date too. Without Pazuzu, or some similar entity with a clear, malevolent desire to cause suffering, the movie’s version of evil lacks personality and true terror. And without God, there’s nothing to profane, no mores to cross or people left to startle. Without a shocking exorcism scene, or sacred rituals to pervert or perform, this movie doesn’t even feel as scary as any random horror movie about a child’s death. The Exorcist was terrifying because it turned the innocence of a child into an insult to God. Without the traditions of religion or the grandeur of God to contrast its evil, Believer gives up the series’ existential heft in favor of pulling our sympathy with the random suffering of children.

Up until this most recent movie, the title The Exorcist carried some weight. While its role as a representation of quality was up for debate, its mark as a sign of ambition was not. Since the original Exorcist, the series has provided some of American cinema’s best and most interesting artists with space to ruminate on faith and evil. Believer lacks the ambition that’s meant to define an Exorcist movie. This is the most profound statement the movie has to offer, seemingly by accident: If the result of moving past God is that everything in the world will feel as empty and pointless as The Exorcist: Believer, we should cling to faith forever.

The Exorcist: Believer is in theaters on Oct. 6.


Even True Detective: Night Country’s answers have mysteries


True Detective: Night Country creator’s breakout horror film will ruin you

What to Watch

The best arctic horror stories to watch after True Detective: Night Country

View all stories in Horror