“What an excellent day for an exorcism.” - The Exorcist
“The scariest film of all time.” Uh huh. Quite the tagline. Quite the statement. While I appreciate the original William Friedkin directed classic, such a line is not only overused but in my opinion highly inaccurate. If you were to say to me “ONE of the scariest films of all time” I might agree with you. However I believe scariest is being confused with influential. To deny the indelible impact that The Exorcist has had not just on horror movies but on pop culture itself is to miss the point entirely.
I’m also aware that when this title was given to the film it was around the time of its premiere in 1973. This was a different time when testing the limits of an audience’s boundaries was still quite new in the world of the R rating which began just five years earlier in 1968. In 1970 MASH was the first American major motion picture to use the word fuck. The release of The Exorcist occurred in a time when things were taking a drastic turn toward the trends and guidelines of what we now understand as modern day Hollyweird. People were not used to seeing children throwing up pea soup and witnessing their head literally spin 360 degrees. It was all so exciting and quite controversial.
Fast forward to now in the age of the internet and the desensitized and these concepts aren’t exactly groundbreaking ideas. So to keep the same kind of story progression, scare tactics and similar visuals it can create something while very much reminiscent and nostalgic can leave little in the way of actually being scary considering we’ve been seeing some version of it for the last fifty years. And this is my greatest issue with the subgenre of exorcism horror movies. They all feel the same. I understand so much of these movies are meant to rely on a psychological terror more than just moments of visually jarring climaxes but for my money a successful psychological horror movie is setting it within the realm of reality. Even if the literal physical setting is something otherworldly you can still create themes of humanity and loneliness and isolation. These are relatable, human themes. Asking me to believe in the oldest fairytale known to man is hard for me to accept as anything but a highly regurgitated yarn. To be scared of the devil and being possessed doesn’t get under my skin whatsoever.
A direct sequel to the first horror movie ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, The Exorcist: Believer is a modern day retelling of an old as time itself story of good overcoming evil. When friends Katherine and Angela go missing it creates a frantic search by parents, friends and law enforcement. Three days after their disappearance they are found thirty miles away without jackets or shoes. They are torn and tattered and completely distant. Their responses are short and curt. They’re back but not really. Their presence is wrong and the problem just might be something beyond the realm of everyday understanding. With the religious and non-believers alike, they are suddenly forced into a world where the devil is not only real but lying in wait for a battle over the souls of their young daughters.
The Exorcist: Believer does nothing to stand out among the never ending sea of exorcism movies. It keeps to the traditions set fifty years ago and have been reused thousands of times since then. The cross that burns someone’s hand, the upside down cross. The dual voices, the self harm featuring demonic phrases. The vomiting, the head spinning and of course, “The power of Christ compels you!” It’s all there. It’s all in the original too so it brings about the obvious question of, “why?” Why do I need to see it all again? It never really justifies its existence. And when it recalls the original it never quite reaches the same level of hysteria that made the original so substantial.
Full disclosure this is coming from someone who has never really cared for the exorcism movie. While there are exceptions that manage something fresh, movies like The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, The Possession all feel without individuality. They do nothing but tow the line of what we’ve already experienced many times before, just as The Exorcist: Believer does. Nothing about this movie surprised me. None of it shocked me on any level. From the visuals to the attempt at something psychological it all felt rudimentary at best.
At one point the phrase, “The devil played a trick on you” is uttered. In a nice tie-in, the twist in the final moments of the movie comes back around to this phrase creating a somewhat unexpected turn. This was my favorite aspect of the story and unfortunately it’s short-lived. It happens and the movie is over. And rather than being a show stopping moment of clarity it’s more of a “oh okay” kind of thing. It was more interesting than shocking. Visually nothing about this movie is all that striking. It never becomes something other than a stressful night of bible study.
A great example of taking the familiarity of the exorcist movie and turning it into something fresh is The Exorcism of Emily Rose, surprisingly a PG-13 horror. Rather than going the usual route, Emily Rose brings about questions of ethics and justifiable religious practices. It clarifies from the start that it doesn’t end well for Emily Rose. In the following two hours it follows a lawyer defending a priest being accused of negligent homicide as he performed an exorcism on a young girl. It asks what was within reason and when it became time for something more real world like time in a mental facility with medication. Basically it’s left up to the defense to prove that evil and the devil himself is very real and Emily Rose was at the whim of genuine demons. It shows Emily Rose trying to find help being left abandoned. It shows her facing the idea of losing her very soul and not being able to leave it all behind for something better. Like her savior she is sent back to endure pain and anguish. It is all at once scary and sad. It feels modern while delving into an ancient world of demons and biblical séances. And if the priest was wrong, does his intent matter at all? It’s a highly intriguing premise with some truly unnerving moments. It has the familiar tropes but rarely does it just rely on them to get by.
Overall The Exorcist: Believer leaves a lot to be desired. Since I’ve never found the original all that scary I think maybe it’s understandable that I didn’t find its continuation all that compelling. I wonder if this subject matter is more intimidating to someone who genuinely believes in God and the Devil? For my money it’s just another exorcism movie trying to masquerade as the next modern day horror classic in the vein of the original. I can appreciate the original because it was a trendsetter creating many of the unwritten rules of modern horror. Everything since has mostly been a rehash of the same old thing.
Rated R For: some violent content, disturbing images, language and sexual references
Runtime: 111 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Starring: Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, Olivia O’Neill, Lidya Jewett
Directed By: David Gordon Green
Out of 10
Story: 6.5/ Acting: 8/ Directing: 7/ Visuals: 6
Buy to Own: No
Check out the trailer below: