Major spoilers ahead for The Exorcist: Believer, including any end credits scenes. You’ve been warned. 

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the scariest flick ever made, The Exorcist (1973)Sadly, this year also marks the death of its director, William Friedkin. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the release of the brand-new entry to the series, The Exorcist: Believer, is this year as well, as I’m sure Universal wanted to have as many ties to the original as possible, given the hefty price they paid for the rights.  

Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) sits with his wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves) in The Exorcist: Believer

Leslie Odom, Jr., Tracey Graves in The Exorcist: Believer

Unfortunately, the good name of The Exorcist has been marred over the decades by sorta-okay-to-downright-awful pre/sequels and one pretty decent series that was never taken to completion. It seems that no one tasked with creating new stories within the flick’s “universe” can achieve that same level of simultaneous creative and financial success. I wish I could say this new flick broke out of that cycle. I wish. 

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So, the new story starts in Haiti in 2010, when the big earthquake struck. We’re introduced to the Fieldings, Victor (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Sorenne (Tracy Graves). Both are photographers enjoying a working vacation, and Sorenne’s pregnant with their first child. When approached by some local vodou practitioners who want to perform a blessing to “protect” the baby, she agrees and seems to find some real spiritual connection in the ritual. But the earthquake hits, and when Victor finally finds Sorenne, she’s been badly injured. The doctors tell him that they can’t save both Sorenne and the baby. So Victor’s forced to make a terrible choice.  

Cut to present-day Georgia, where Victor’s now a single dad to Angela (Lidya Jewett). While getting ready for school, Angela goes through a box of her mother’s things and finds the scarf she was wearing the day she died. She takes it with her, but when Victor sees it, he immediately takes it back, not wanting to give up anything of Sorenne’s. Even though Angela’s disappointed and annoyed at him, the two maintain a close relationship, managing to work in a quick game of hide and seek that gets them both laughing. 

Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) hide in a barn in The Exorcist: Believer

Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill in The Exorcist: Believer

While he drops her off at school, another girl named Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) gets dropped off too. Turns out she and Angela are besties, and Victor reluctantly puts his overprotectiveness away for a minute and lets Angela hang out with Katherine after school to do homework. Victor goes off to his job as a portrait photographer (there’s a pretty funny scene of him trying and failing to get decent shots of a family with a bratty kid), which is hardly the career he imagined for himself. He does notice though, some strange faces and distortion appearing in the shots. 

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Meanwhile, Angela and Katherine head off into the woods instead of doing the studying they told their parents they were doing. The girls find the ruins of some abandoned structure and proceed to start doing some half-baked séance type thing. Which of course, is the big no-no. Victor comes home later only to find Angela isn’t there. He calls Katherine’s parents, and they all realize that both girls are missing.  

Victor and Katherine’s parents, Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) and Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), head out to the woods to search. They find the girls’ backpacks and Angela’s shoes. They call the cops, and soon a full search is underway, the whole town mobilizing to find the girls. There’s an interesting subtext going on here about the obvious conflict between Victor as a single black man and Katherine’s white-as-white-gets parents. There’s definite tension among them, as they’re supposedly working together but are in direct competition as to who can get more attention and help. 

Tony (Norbert Leo Butz) and Miranda (Jennifer Nettles) restrain Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) in The Exorcist: Believer

Norbert Leo Butz, Jennifer Nettles, Olivia O’Neill in The Exorcist: Believer

Three days later, a farmer finds the girls hiding in his barn. They’re brought to the hospital for treatment and questioning by the cops. But neither of them remembers anything, and they both think they’ve only been gone for a few hours. The girls get released and go home, and the weird behavior starts – that now-familiar thousand-yard stare, their ability to suddenly appear behind people, the saying of strange and obscene things. 

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Miranda and Tony make the colossal mistake of bringing Katherine to church with them, even though she’s acting really creepy-weird and doesn’t look good at all. She disappears during the communion service while her parents aren’t watching and then suddenly reappears, walking up the aisle and repeating “The body and the blood” over and over.  

Meanwhile, Angela’s behavior’s gotten worse as well, enough that Victor has to take her back to the hospital after she nearly kills him. As one of the nurses, Ann (Hereditary’s Ann Dowd) – who also happens to be their next-door neighbor and a former nun – checks on Angela, Angela tells Ann things about her life that she couldn’t possibly know, including an abortion she had. Not only is Ann terrified, but it also lets her know that Angela’s probably possessed. Soon after, the doctors determine that Angela needs psychiatric care and Victor is forced to put her in a treatment center. 

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) talks to Victor in The Exorcist: Believer

Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist: Believer

Ann approaches Victor and tells him what happened. She gives him a book, a memoir written by none other than Chris MacNeil (the legendary Ellen Burstyn), about her experience as the parent of a possessed child. Victor of course ends up contacting Chris and meeting her.

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Chris tells him that after what she and her daughter Regan (the also legendary Linda Blair) went through, she made it a point to learn everything about demonic possession and exorcism in all parts of the world. As a result, she’s become a sorta-kinda expert who does a lot of lectures. Chris also tells him that unfortunately, because of all that, Regan refuses to have anything to do with her and won’t even tell her where she lives. But she agrees to meet Angela and do what she can to help. 

Victor brings Chris to the hospital, where Angela’s been scraping “Regan” into the wall, expecting her. Possessed Angela seems to recognize Chris, who wants to see Katherine as well. Miranda and Tony have her squirreled away at home, which Chris smartly remarks as being a big mistake. When Chris confronts her, it seems that it’s the same demon who possessed Regan, though it’s not made clear. Then, when Chris tries to expel the demon, possessed Katherine stabs poor Chris in both eyes with a crucifix. Yow.  

Pastor (Raphael Sbarge), Ann (Ann Dowd) and Stuart (Danny McCarthy) perform an exorcism on Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O'Neill) in The Exorcist: Believer

Raphael Sbarge, Ann Dowd, Danny McCarthy, Lidya Jewett, Olivia O’Neill in The Exorcist: Believer

Ann brings the girls’ case to the Catholic Church’s attention via a priest named Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla) (who I honestly don’t remember seeing before the meeting, but anyway). He explains that whatever the girls did during that séance opened the door for the demon(s) who now possess them. 

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Somehow or another the parents decide that the best course of action is to perform the exorcism anyway, with representatives of both Victor and Miranda and Tony’s faiths. So not only is the pastor from Miranda and Tony’s church (Raphael Sbarge) involved, but also Victor’s Pentecostal buddy Stuart (Danny McCarthy) and a friend of his, an oncologist turned vodou priestess, Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili).  

Father Maddox shows up but tells them he can’t participate because the Church’s official answer was a big, fat nope. So he tells Ann that even though he’s bravely running away, she can stand in his place, not only being a Catholic but also a former nun herself. The group sets up Victor’s dining room with chairs bolted down and a giant Vodou chalk drawing on the floor. 

They start the ritual, which mostly involves all of them shouting at the same time, reciting prayers/chants unique to their faiths while the possessed girls writhe around and say terrible things. And somehow or other, Chris is psychically wired in from her hospital room. Yeah, I don’t know either. 

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The group then takes a break to go out and chat. Then they come back and do some more exorcising. It seems to work, and then it doesn’t. Father Maddox enters dramatically, reciting the Roman ritual and laying hands on the girls’ heads. He’s like the Superman of exorcism – until his head whirls around and his neck snaps. Yeah, you knew that was coming. 

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) talks with Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) in The Exorcist: Believer

Ellen Burstyn, Leslie Odom, Jr. in The Exorcist: Believer

Then, the demon(s) gives them all an ultimatum – choose one to live, one to die. Everyone avoids making the choice until a desperate Tony finally cries out to save his Katherine. But of course, the demon(s), being the master of lies, kills Katherine and spares Angela before making its exit.  

And that’s pretty much it. Things go back to normal, except for poor Miranda and Tony who are left with a dead child. But then in a super-surprise twist, Chris gets a visit in the hospital … from Regan. Yeah. Wow. That, at least, was truly unexpected.  

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The trailer for The Exorcist: Believer was one of the best I’d seen in a while. And even though the track record for Exorcist sequels is pretty dismal, the trailer really gave me hope that this one would be the one to properly revive the material.  

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As the flick started, I was still holding onto that hope. The first act provides a great setup and at least one decent character in Victor. Then, there’s also some integrity in that racial subtext after the girls disappear. Even after the girls return and things really start to go wrong, they do a pretty decent job of showing us the turn for the worse and making it creepy if not outright scary. 

Victor (Leslie Odom, Jr.) talks to his daughter in The Exorcist: Believer

Leslie Odom, Jr. in The Exorcist: Believer

However, when Chris MacNeil is reintroduced, everything changes. A switch flips. Then, suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – all the goodwill the first act saved up evaporates, and what was a decent setup turns out to be for naught. The flick just turns into a defective copy of every exorcism flick that’s ever been. It uses all the same devices that the original made so famous but lacks all the skillful storytelling and character development, even as much as it had in the beginning. 

When it falls apart, it does so quite spectacularly, becoming so sloppy and lazy that it just makes you gape in horror – but the wrong kind of horror. It becomes the kind of flick that’s so bad it makes you angry. You’re left stunned, wondering how the same filmmakers who managed to provide such a good first act could’ve let the rest of it go so horribly wrong.  

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So, unfortunately, The Exorcist: Believer just ends up being the latest in a string of bad sequels. And what’s worse is that it’s not over yet. There are supposedly two more flicks to come. My hope is that they haven’t gotten far enough in production yet, and they can be stopped. If anything, I’d take that money and put it into a final season of the series instead. At least there was good material there. Otherwise, there’s just no point.  

The Exorcist: Believer further cements my position that classic movies should be protected against crappy sequels/prequels/sidequels/spinoffs. Sometimes even those made by the original filmmakers. What really needs to be hammered home to Hollywood – and in this instance, Universal, Blumhouse and David Gordon Green – is that just checking the boxes (good creature makeup, spinning heads, “Tubular Bells,” a similar type font and sucker-punch stunt casting) doesn’t make a flick worthy of its predecessor. It takes skilled storytelling, and in the case of The Exorcist, the most skilled, writing and direction beyond reproach. If you don’t have that all the way through, then you don’t have anything. You really just shouldn’t bother. 

The Exorcist: Believer poster

 Directed by:  David Gordon Green 

Written by:  Peter Sattler, David Gordon Green, William Peter Blatty (novel) 

Release date:  Oct. 6, 2023 

Rating:  R 

Run time:  1 hr, 51 min 

Distributor:  Universal Pictures 

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