The creative, commercial, and overall cultural impact of 1973’s “The Exorcist” cannot be overstated. Every Halloween, you’re bound to see and hear references to the film, from facsimiles of Linda Blair’s otherworldly-affected face to recreations of the iconic head-spinning scene to quotes of demonic threats that can’t be repeated here. The film spawned both sequels and prequels, none of which I’ve seen, but critical consensus indicates paled in comparison to the original. Now, a nice round 50 years after the original, comes “The Exorcist: Believer.” It pales in comparison to the original so badly that it’s worse than “pale,” it’s the putrid yellow color of the possessed girls’ flesh. Come to think of it, the phrase “beyond the pale” works very nicely here.
13-year-old Angela (Lidya Jewett) lives a disorganized life with her widowed, atheist father Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.). Her best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) seems to have the more organized household with two Christian parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz). But both girls are at a rebellious age, so they sneak off after school one day to perform a ritual to contact Angela’s late mother. We’re not privy to what happens to them next, but their parents notice when they don’t come home that night. After a three-day, community-wide search, the girls are found in a barn 30 miles away from their school. The good news is that they’re healthy aside from some scarring, the bad news is that burning questions remain about what happened to them in those three days – and they don’t remember.
The parents try to return the girls to their normal lives, but of course it’s not that easy. The girls hear nonexistent noises, they bleed terrible CGI blood, they attack people in cheap jump scares. Eventually they both have to be restrained at a hospital. Katherine’s parents believe demonic forces may be at work, but Victor just thinks they’re panicking. His nurse neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd) gives him a book on possession – written by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), the possessed girl from the first movie. He goes to visit Chris, who agrees to help. She confronts the possessed Angela for about a minute before being taken out of the action, if not out of the movie.
To save the girls, the parents will have to do a proper exorcism. They’ll have to tie the girls to chairs and bring in at least four different religious officials. The local Catholic diocese insists on non-involvement, and there’s an eye-rolling subplot about a priest (E.J. Bonilla) and his willingness to help. Victor will have to get over his disillusionment with faith. It’s all typical exorcist-movie stuff, relying on a formula instead of recognizing a responsibility to write (or rewrite) the formula. Oh, and one character is definitely going to be a candidate for those “Biggest Idiots in Horror Movies” lists that are all over YouTube. They will be right at home alongside the mayor from “Jaws” and Paul Reiser in “Aliens.”
The best thing I can say about “The Exorcist: Believer” is that some of the cast members are trying hard. I can’t find fault with the kids, Odom leans into his heavier scenes, Burstyn nails her cameo, and Ann Dowd, as always, steals the show. At first I thought her character was going to be the typical grouchy neighbor that gets killed early to illustrate that the evil entity is indeed dangerous (I have to be honest, even “M3GAN,” my favorite horror movie of 2023 so far, wasn’t above this lazy trope), but I was glad to see her stick around. But the film’s pacing, predictability, and special effects are a mess, and ultimately make this official “Exorcist” entry no better than any number of knockoffs of the classic.
“The Exorcist: Believer” is rated R for some violent content, disturbing images, language and sexual references. Its running time is 111 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.