It takes a high level of trust to produce a follow-up to The Exorcist (1973). William Friedkin’s seminal horror film remains untouchable that producers of The Exorcist: Believer had to secure a blessing from the original creators before proceeding to develop the project.
Thankfully, Believer is not a rehash of its original predecessor but more of an expansion of what the franchise can offer to a contemporary audience. Director David Gordon Green, who previously helmed the sequel trilogy of John Carpenter’s Halloween, spearheads this revamp of the franchise where legacy character Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) returns.
Beyond MacNeil and the aspect of exorcism, there’s nothing much about The Exorcist: Believer that connects it with the original film. Since it's a whole new story with a different setting, linking it to The Exorcist brand seems unnecessary. But Green felt that the two are very much aligned thematically. He noted in his LRM Online interview how he “wanted to have multiple religious perspectives, not just a Catholic power [for Believer]. I wanted to open it up to otherworldly perspectives, including skepticism and atheism and conversations that I think are very valuable, if not essential in today’s culture.”
The Exorcist: Believer follows Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), a single father who lost his daughter and her friend for a few days. When the two girls mysteriously reemerged, signs of demonic possession started appearing to them. All help available becomes exhausted, and the only person who may help is someone who had a similar experience with her daughter 50 years ago.
Much like the original Exorcist, Believer’s demonic possession and the actual exorcism only occurs halfway in. The film spent a large stretch of the running time building up the dynamics of Victor and his daughter, and a disappearance subplot that was surprisingly forgotten later on. The casual viewer may be bummed at how slow the film can be but it helps that the filmmakers take their time to develop the emotional core of its characters.
Horror fans might come in The Exorcist: Believer for Burstyn reprising her role as MacNeil, the mother of former exorcism victim Regan (Linda Blair). Due to a very limited screen time, her return is nothing but a glorified cameo, expected to elicit a few cheers from the crowd. Burstyn delivered here, and a terrifying moment involving her and a demon in the film’s second act proved why MacNeil still stands as one of her greatest roles.
Odom was also captivating here as Victor Fielding, carrying the entire film the same way Burstyn did in the original Exorcist. In an interview with the Philadelphia Magazine, Odom pointed out how the concept of vulnerability becomes a common thread in these movies. Seeing him on that observation enhances not only his performance but also how the audience has become so quickly empathized with his character. Odom shines throughout, especially in a chilling moment where he realizes it was demonic possession that has been terrorizing his daughter. While his future for this franchise is unclear, there’s no denying his strong presence here.
The most interesting part of these Exorcist movies is how they present horror on a smaller, domestic scale. This look has been greatly achieved by the film’s cinematography, led by Green’s Halloween collaborator Michael Simmonds. The climax of Believer, an exorcism of the two girls, is set in a confined room, and while it may not work for everybody, the way it was handled in terms of cinematography was applaudable. It makes you feel like you're watching something big even when you're just watching a few characters in a living room.
No one can top the original Exorcist and The Exorcist: Believer knows that. By slowly creating an identity of its own, the future of this new franchise from Green is exciting to watch unfold in future installments.
Do we really need a new Exorcist? Not necessarily. But if Believer is any indication, this legacy sequel should be worth a try.
The Exorcist: Believer opens in Philippine cinemas on Oct. 4 from Universal Pictures. Watch the trailer below.