Horror franchises tend to be defined by their immutability. Make a hit in the genre, and you’re all but guaranteed a slew of sequels that follow a tight formula: slasher films where a monstrous force stalks the youth, ghost stories set in creepy houses. But The Exorcist has always been different. The recently departed William Friedkin’s 1973 film was a box-office sensation—adjusted for inflation, it’s still one of the 10 biggest movies ever made. Yet every attempt to sequelize it has been a baffling, bizarre narrative swerve that takes the theme of demonic possession and places it in a wildly different context.
That is, until David Gordon Green’s new film, The Exorcist: Believer, which follows the blandest of blueprints: Take the first film’s plot, repeat it in the present day with a few tweaks, bring in well-known actors from the past to lend instant credibility, and bam, you have yourself a “legacy sequel.” Green did the same thing with his 2018 film, Halloween, which paid direct homage to the original and relied on star Jamie Lee Curtis; that spawned two sequels, and now Green is trying the same approach here. He’s tagged in Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn (now 90 years old) to consult on a case of demonic possession for not one but—gasp!—two teenage girls.
The results are as predictable as you might expect. Outside of the fact that it has two possessed subjects, Believer is a straightforward exorcism movie, largely following the plot of the 1973 classic. Stricken parents (played by Leslie Odom Jr., Jennifer Nettles, and Norbert Leo Butz) watch as their young daughters suffer from inexplicable medical symptoms and behavioral changes that are eventually deemed to be demonic, necessitating an exorcism. Fifty years ago, Friedkin’s film depicted the ritual by showing the victim writhing violently, cursing in a guttural voice, and emitting vile substances. These tropes have been copied ever since, mostly by pale imitators such as The Devil Inside, Deliver Us From Evil, The Last Exorcism, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Interestingly, The Exorcist sequels have largely avoided that familiar path. After the first film’s colossal, Oscar-winning success, Exorcist II: The Heretic was released in 1977, helmed by another esteemed director (John Boorman). But it was critically derided at the time partly because of how much it deviated from expectations. That film is about African environmental politics and machines that link people’s brain waves, and features a psychic battle with the devil in the form of a locust swarm. Though sometimes baffling, it is an admirably unusual work that defies easy stereotyping and is now beloved by some (Martin Scorsese has said that he prefers it to the original).
The 1990 film The Exorcist III tried to hew closer to the original by bringing in William Peter Blatty as writer and director. Blatty had written the original Exorcist novel and the screenplay for the film adaptation, and for this sequel, he adapted a different book of his, the serial-killer drama Legion. The Exorcist III functions as a hard-boiled cop drama with supernatural overtones, a hunt for a Zodiac-esque serial killer where the devil himself might be involved. Then, in 2004, Paul Schrader was hired to direct a prequel to the first movie, but the studio was unsatisfied with his ruminative work and shot a new version directed by Renny Harlin, called Exorcist: The Beginning. That film functions mostly as a religious action movie, with the priest Lankester Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgård) doing battle with the devil in 1940s Cairo. It was so poorly received that the studio eventually relented and put out Schrader’s completed version, titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist—a far more interesting (though slower-paced) take on the same character and setting.
There’s a good reason each sequel didn’t try to replicate the drama of The Exorcist, which despite many attempts remains inimitable. It’s largely a testament to an almost-50-year-old movie that The Exorcist: Believer delivers so few proper scares, even with an extensive modern-CGI budget and the enthusiastic support of its studio, Universal, which spent $400 million on the rights and was planning a film trilogy. There’s none of the shock of the original, because the two possessed girls are given makeup jobs similar to that of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in the first movie. After so many copycats and parodies, seeing them grunt profanities and hover in the air no longer feels transgressive.
It’d help if the tale had a compelling emotional foundation, but the backstory for stricken dad Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), is the paint-by-numbers tragedy of Angela losing her mother at birth. The inclusion of Burstyn’s character Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, feels meaningless, a tether to the original Exorcist that exists largely to confirm that, yes, Angela and her friend Katherine are possessed and, no, modern medicine won’t save them. The Exorcist: Believer brushes up against an interesting notion—this time, the Catholic Church refuses to approve an official exorcism, citing concerns over the safety of the procedure. But the end result is not much different; it’s still a bunch of adults standing in a room yelling prayers and exhortations at possessed girls.
If two sequels are truly planned to follow The Exorcist: Believer, Green and his producing partners (including the horror mega-mogul Jason Blum) would be wise to return to the previous approach to Exorcist sequels. Taking the notion of demonic possession and dropping it into other genres or narrative types could have more daring results. Another back-to-basics movie like this one would inevitably feel painfully derivative, as though cowering in the huge shadow still cast by Friedkin’s masterwork.