What Horror Fans Are Getting Wrong About Exorcist: Believer

It might not be a particularly scary movie, but it’s a pretty great David Gordon Green movie.

What Horror Fans Are Getting Wrong About Exorcist Believer

Photograph: Everett Collection; Collage: Gabe Conte

David Gordon Green has done it again—by which I mean he’s cowritten and directed a legacy sequel to a beloved 1970s horror masterpiece, causing critics and horror fans alike to recoil in disgust. The Exorcist: Believer opens this weekend, to a chorus of online boos even louder than those that greeted his recent Halloween sequels. But as with Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends, Green’s latest movie is more than a cynical cash grab.

The critics are right about one aspect of Believer: It’s not especially scary. The truth about exorcism movies (almost all of which owe a debt to the 50-year-old film Green is sequelizing) is that very few of them are. Even William Friedkin’s original is difficult to see in optimal circumstances, which would involve being reborn as a Catholic in 1958, then waiting 15 years for all your worst fears to come true on a giant silver screen. That film nonetheless continues to enrapture audiences. While it doesn’t offer much material for a sequel, legacy or otherwise, talents including director John Boorman, original author William Peter Blatty, and filmmaker Paul Schrader have all made interesting failures out of Exorcist sequels. The consensus on Green’s take is that it isn’t even that– that it’s just a muddle of callbacks and bad horror-picture signifiers.

But the signifiers in Believer that are actually most compelling are Green’s own. Though it’s far from a white-knuckle frightfest, the movie very much develops on his terms, and serves as a companion piece to his Halloween trilogy. The film opens with the Haiti earthquake of 2010, where Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) loses his very pregnant wife. Jumping ahead 13 years, we learn that doctors were able to save his daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), now a teenager who Victor dotes on as a single parent. As with his version of Halloween’s Haddonfield, Green teases out little glints of both sweetness and hostility from everyday suburban life: the playfulness with which Victor tries to soften his overprotectiveness of Angela; the way their neighbor (Ann Dowd) hectors them about hauling in their trash cans from the curb; the spark of new and giggly friendship between Angela and her popular classmate Katherine (Olivia Marcum), in turn reflected with quiet dismay in the eyes of another girl, left out but for her reluctant role as an alibi.

Angela and Katherine don’t have especially nefarious plans; they just want to sneak off into the woods—a Green specialty—and do a little sleepover-style ritual (Angela hopes to contact her departed mother). We don’t see exactly what happens, only disturbing flashes, but soon the girls are missing, and when they return, after what they think is only a few hours of wandering, it’s three days later and they’re 30 miles away, having lost any sense of time. It’s under these unsettling circumstances that Victor meets Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), religious types quick to anger over their daughter’s bond with a girl they don’t know. Soon enough, the strange behavior the audience is waiting for commences, and we’re on our way to a double exorcism.

That’s how the movie has been described: as an unimpressive gimmick, with two possessed girls for the price of one, plus a soullessly lured-back original star Ellen Burstyn (who’s said she took the gig in order to parlay the studio’s desperation into funding for an acting scholarship). It’s true that the movie’s “legacy” elements could be lifted out almost completely with little difference to the narrative (beyond possibly improving it, and giving more screen time to characters who actually need it). It’s outright baffling that Burstyn was considered such a key element, both in terms of what she does in the movie (very little) and what anyone remembers about The Exorcist (due respect to the amazing Burstyn, but Regan MacNeil’s mom is not exactly a horror icon). The bedeviled besties, however, are right in Green’s wheelhouse–exactly the architecture he needs to explore the community dynamics that seem to fascinate him.

In his many indie dramas, Green almost always evinces a keen sense of place, whether it’s the young-love hope amidst wintry small-town tragedy of Snow Angels, the fable-like hidden world of rural Georgia (also the state where Believer is set) in Undertow, or the shuffling personal histories bumping into each other throughout Manglehorn. Believer uses the woodsy settings he’s often turned to as kind of a dark fairy-tale offshoot of suburban Georgia, with the girls’ disappearance tightening unspoken tensions between belief systems (and perhaps, though it’s not even tacitly referred to, races; Victor and Angela are Black, while Katherine’s family reads as extremely white-bread). The movie feels most genuinely unsettling when the girls return home, still unmoored from their families. Anyone who’s been met with a sleepwalking child in the middle of the night will startle, then nod with recognition when Angela makes a supernaturally sudden appearance in front of her dad; Green also turns a child fidgeting through church into a grotesque spectacle, taking the demon out of that old familiar bedroom setting as a possessed Katherine mockingly chants “the body and the blood” at a disbelieving pastor.

This gets Katherine’s parents on board with a less medical solution. Victor, a nonbeliever owing to his obligatory tragic backstory, needs more convincing. That’s standard exorcism stuff, but Odom teases out the hurt and fear Victor is experiencing, rather than relying on standard come-to-Jesus baptism. Green and his cowriters cleverly sidestep the Catholic-recruitment portion of the narrative by pulling in figures of different experiences and faiths into the inevitable exorcism—a group effort that does not actually center a proper Vatican-approved exorcist. (Fans who point this out with derision should be grateful Green allows them to indulge their greatest pleasure: pedantry.) It’s a kind of ramshackle flipside to Nightmare on Elm Street, where the collective sin of the parents are visited upon their children, who are burdened with destroying Freddy Krueger. Here, adults must struggle to let go of their various forms of guilt, shame, and/or tribalism, all exploited by the demons, and offer a unified, communal effort to cleanse their children. Green’s movies often set young characters adrift, in search of nontraditional stability or support; it’s a thread that runs through films as otherwise diverse as George Washington, Joe, The Sitter, and Halloween Ends, and there’s something touching about Green making a movie where the grown-ups try to rectify the problem.

Is this as cornball as it sounds? Sort of; we all know how useless, even disingenuous, pleas for unity can sound in 2023. But Green’s vision is also a lot thornier and more thought-provoking than the typical exorcism picture’s affirmations of faith. (Without getting into spoilers, Green doesn’t go all-in on enforced uplift, either.) So many directors of Green’s generation make period pictures that, obliquely or not, comment on the present from a distant vantage. Green makes almost exclusively contemporary-set movies that sometimes feel time-warped, either through characters who haven’t caught up to the modern world, or environments left behind, or divided, by ongoing industrialization. In that context, he’s unusually qualified to make a legacy sequel to a 50-year-old movie.

Admittedly, The Exorcist: Believer isn’t as satisfying as Green’s best work, in his horror sequels or otherwise. I wish that the film spent more time with Angela and Katherine’s burgeoning friendship, or allowed their séance in the woods to play out longer before eliding their disappearance. At times, the film feels as if it’s making concessions to an unseen force demanding that it get to the possession faster. Believer also doesn’t have much room for Green’s sense of humor, beyond some funny details like the decidedly unpossessed little boy still behaving demonically for a family photo shoot.

It’s these movies that set Green’s horror work, even a minor one like Believer, apart from the tedious portent of so many self-serious genre exercises. There’s an exploratory spirit to The Exorcist: Believer, as if we’re watching Green turn the material over in his head as he makes the film, and this makes its dopey, straight-ahead homages to the original jut out even more prominently. Green supposedly signed on to do an Exorcist trilogy, just like his Halloween follow-ups, but this movie is so unconcerned with ongoing storylines and recapturing 1973 that it’s hard to picture what the next one could even look like. In that way, he’s made a faithful tribute to the original.

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