0.5 out of 5 stars

What’s the deal with David Gordon Green and vintage horror reboots? His Halloween (2018) was the best of that franchise’s many sequels, but that’s damning with faint praise as the others are trash, and now we have The Exorcist: Believer. Why has he gone from making respected indie dramas like George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003) to such cheap commercial junk, repackaging better filmmaker’s genuine visions?

Full disclosure: The Exorcist (1973) is my favourite film. This will hopefully explain the intensity of what I’m about to say regarding The Exorcist: Believer, which I would have walked out of if I hadn’t been tasked with reviewing it.

The story follows a man called Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr) who gets caught in a Haitian earthquake with his pregnant wife (Tracey Graves), who dies shortly after a witch doctor blesses her bump. The baby survives, and 13 years later in the US state of Georgia, this daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), goes missing along with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum), having decided to perform a Pagan ritual in a rancid hole in the woods to contact Angela’s mother.

The missing girls show up three days later (having somehow not died of exposure), with little memory of what happened and with new demonic personalities manifesting. The community brain trust kicks into gear, including nurse and one-time novitiate Ann (Ann Dowd) who puts Victor in touch with… sigh, Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn, returning at 90 years old to reprise her role from the original as the mother of once-possessed Regan (Linda Blair).

There’s so much wrong with this film that it’s hard to know where to start. It’s not scary and relies on jump scares, uninspired SFX, and shallow vulgarity that honestly caused me to burst out laughing on more than one occasion: like Katherine masturbating in church while her horrified siblings look on, and Angela experiencing violent menstruation while taunting a woman about her abortion. There’s an undertone of misogyny to some of this material that was probably unintended, but still there.

This is the type of film where characters are so badly thought up and motivated they feel like they’re from a sitcom. Riddle me this: if your neighbour’s daughter went missing, would you gather a group of witch doctors to chant, dance, and smoke up her bedroom without her father knowing?

So far, a lot of this is just funny-bad, but at a certain point, it becomes an act of offensive cultural vandalism. In one scene, Chris McNeil says she would have witnessed Regan’s exorcism if it wasn’t for “the patriarchy.” Now, I consider myself a feminist. I believe patriarchy is a real thing and needs to be dismantled… but Chris McNeil in The Exorcist was not kept out of her daughter’s bedroom by the patriarchy.

In the original film, if you recall, Chris McNeil was a famous actor. She wasn’t an exorcist. She had no interest in or knowledge of exorcism until it became her last resort. She was a charming, funny, intelligent single mother who lived independently. To have her say she was kept out of the exorcism by the patriarchy in this film is to make her a narcissistic slack-wit.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Green compounds this characterisation by having her wander unprotected into a possessed girl’s bedroom and be immediately, gorily attacked. Why does he hate her original character so much? Why has he turned a strong female character into a complete ass?

This also ties in with how Green depicts Chris as having gone on a speaking tour after Regan’s exorcism, releasing a book about it. Green, Green… did you fall asleep before the ending when Chris packs up her Georgetown home and leaves in a car with Regan, intent on moving forward with their lives?

Green tries papering over the gaping cracks of his story with long, schmaltzy monologues about coming together as a community. One of these concludes the film when it should have ended with the shot of Odom Jr.’s eyes. This is a theming technique that Green has carried over from his Halloween trilogy but it’s never seemed more desperate than it does here.

This small-town vision clashes hard with whatever suspense he’s trying to generate with The Exorcist: Believer. That the film pushes the idea of hardline Christianity and ritualised hocus pocus as a social bonding and benign force in the US is problematic. This is a country that’s seen a new resurgence in antiscientific beliefs post-COVID. Yet here comes The Exorcist: Believer to tell Americans that no, superstition is justified and the real quackery is psychiatry.

This is yet another misunderstanding of the original text by Green and co-writer Peter Sattler. The possession of Regan McNeil is treated by The Exorcist as a vanishingly rare event in our modern world, not an opportunity to scoff at human knowledge and progress, to pretend that your little community of superstitious cretins should be exorcising sick kids.

Blatty and Friedkin grounded their work in both scripture and medical knowledge. The Exorcist communicates that one should exhaust all medical and psychiatric avenues first, and even has doctors suggest an exorcism to appeal to the child’s “delusions” in order for a placebo effect to occur. This causes Chris to utter, with subtle incredulity and fear, one of the most important and affecting lines in the film: “You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor.” In Green’s hands, she would have gone straight to a witch doctor.

The Exorcist: Believer is stupid, moronic, simpering, smug, pathetic, offensive, and contemptible. That Green and McBride are planning a trilogy is insulting. That 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn agreed to appear in it for more than a cameo, only to have her once strong and intelligent character turned into a vapid sideshow, is actually tragic.

That Linda Blair played any role at all is… well, she’s a prominent activist in the animal rights movement and has helped to rehabilitate rescues, so I hope she saved some dogs with her cheque. If The Exorcist: Believer manages to fund some decent care for dispossessed animals… it’ll still be the worst film of 2023 so far, but at least it will have done some good.

Otherwise, I renounce it and hope it burns in hell.


frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

director: David Gordon Green.
writer: Peter Sattler & David Gordon Green (story by Scott Teems, Danny McBride & David Gordon Green; characters by William Peter Blatty).
starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Jennifer Nettles, Norbert Leo Butz, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum & Ellen Burstyn.