The Exorcist: Believer proves how much harder it is to turn heads 50 years later

Fifty years ago Warner Brothers delivered William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ on Christmas day. The film bedeviled audiences who lined up for hours to experience the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl before leaving scandalized, pious, tormented, physically ill, contrite, invigorated, mesmerized, some silent, some babbling–but, almost all, left certain they had just experienced something momentous.

The cultural fingerprints of ‘The Exorcist’ are everywhere from the shattered box office records ($441 million worldwide* over the years to become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time) to the parodies , to the imitations , to the sequels.

Fifty years ago it would be difficult to cite a better example of that era’s monoculture. Even those who did not have the compulsion (possession?) to see the film knew what it was; its subject matter, imagery, religious implications and attendant claims to authenticity made the film a talking point of conversations in every walk of life.

-Have you seen ‘The Exorcist?’

-Oh Lord. Yes. It was awful.

-Have you seen ‘The Exorcist?’

-Heavens no. My sister did and she hasn’t slept in a week.

There is nothing in our diffuse modern culture that will ever come close to supplanting it—no matter how much money Blumhouse spends trying. The horror studio—famous for turning the low-budget ‘Paranormal Activity’ films into the foundations of a major Hollywood player responsible for both the ‘Insidious’ and ‘Purge’ franchises—hired director David Gordon Green to resurrect the ‘Halloween’ franchise to both critical and commercial success in 2018. (Just don’t ask about the two sequels that followed.)

The hope was that Green could repeat the trick with ‘The Exorcist: Believer,’ the first of a planned trilogy which arrived a week earlier than they anticipated due to the Blumhouse execs getting  scared away from next Friday’s (the 13!) release date by a Taylor Swift concert movie.  

I’ll allow that the Swifties might have something to say about the death of monoculture.

Like ‘Halloween’ (2018), the new film seems to ignore the other sequels and could be seen out of sequence as an introduction to the IP.

Beginning with a flashback prologue we meet Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Sorenne Fielding (Tracey Graves) vacationing in Port au Prince in the final weeks of a pregnancy. Doctors advise against traveling later than the 32nd week of a baby’s term, but how much faith should we really put in them?

Though familiar to fans of the original, setting the prologue in a dilapidated, sun-baked local is meant to echo and not trace over the plot. While out strolling the markets, Sorenne is led to a ceremony intended as a blessing of protection for her unborn child. Though skeptical, she tells Victor that she has been moved by the experience and seems chastened by her own agnosticism.

After an earthquake, the couple barely survive. The Haitian physicians present them with a grave decision: Save the mother or save the child?

From there, the film jumps ahead to present-day Georgia where Victor and 13-year old Angela (Lidya Jewett) are getting ready for a typical school day. Angela is haunted by the vacuum that exists without her, Though haunted is not the right word. She rummages through a bin of her mother’s clothes, taking a scarf to wear for reasons that will be revealed later.

The stranger who died giving birth to her is luminous and bursting with life in photographs. She is also silent; a muted saint in some great beyond. Any child would be naturally curious to learn more about their absent parents.

Angela, as it turns out, might be open to the idea of being haunted.

After school ends, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) walk into the woods to conduct what seems like an innocent and frivolous divination. We know better. 

In the Exorcist novel that started this franchise William Peter Blatty suggests that the girl Reagan’s initial contact with the spiritual realm was done by playing with a Ouija board. Evil abounds but possession needs a crack in the door.

When Victor discovers that Angela never came home, he and Katherine’s parents begin a frantic and emotional three day search that is as terrifying for what the helpless parents imagine might be happening as almost anything that takes place on-screen after.

The girls are discovered in a farm–terrified, drenched by rain and without memory of the missing gap in time. Though this baffles the doctors and the investigating police, these scenes lack tension. The girls are sent home but almost immediately begin behaving grotesqueries. After 50 years of demonic possession, the audience knows exactly what is wrong with them; we must wait for the characters to wise up and realize as well.This is where ‘Exorcist: Believer’ could have used more creativity to prove to audiences in 2023, these films still have anything relevant to say. 

Green modernized the Halloween films with subtextual nods to the ‘Me Too’ movement, victim shaming, feminine anger, online radicalization, mob mentality, generational trauma, and holding your therapists, police force and podcasters accountable.

What contemporary evil could be weaponized by the devil to divide us? Take a moment and think of one. Mental health? Incels? Wealth disparity? Racism? Even broader; climate change, religious fanaticism, asymmetrical warfare, which by another name is called genocide. None of those scare you?

The truth is that the world is no longer as easy to scandalize. Thanks to the internet we have seen (and heard) children die in Uvalde, Texas, Islamic State beheadings, the asphyxiation of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin, the mass exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing by raft to watery graves, or, should they complete their passage? Dystopian internment camps on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, and Leros. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is the cheapening cost of human lives.

Instead of tilling new ground ‘Exorcist: Believer‘ devotes its second half to replaying the hits, or at least what Jason Blum and David Gordon Green think the hits are. Self-flagellation, yellow pupils set in bloodshot eyes, chiropractic exorbitance, raspy chain-smoking voice-over, obscenities and perverse taunting of a sexual nature, and finally a religious rite of exorcism. You might stifle a yawn.

Imagine the parents being convinced by some nurse with a YouTube channel that demonic possession is their children’s actual diagnosis. Imagine using disinformation or fanaticism to cause emotional, spiritual, and eventually physical harm to your own kids. Now that would be a new trick!

In ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) Reagan’s mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is referred from doctor to doctor on her exhaustive quest for answers. Scenes of the little girl being subjected to the sterile prodding and poking of modern machinery are as disturbing in nature as the girl being flung up and down on a mattress, particularly because they happen everyday.

After a team of doctors fail to reach a diagnosis one of them halfheartedly suggests the performance of an exorcism; even though he dubunks the scientific validity of them in the same breath. 

MacNeil’s is aghast. She asks if she heard him correctly and asks, “Are you saying that you want me to take my daughter to a witch doctor?”

The implications of this turn like a knife in her side. All of her agnostic empiricism laid waste, she wears the devastation on her face without any aid from the special effects cabinets of Dick Smith, the Oscar-winning practical effects titan.  

Now imagine reaching that conclusion today after taking on crippling amounts of debt and navigating the labyrinthian escape room that the American healthcare system has become. The horror. The horror. 

*Adjusted for today’s ticket prices, ‘The Exorcist,’ which sold an estimated 116.5 million tickets, would have made around $1.04 billion.