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The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t resurrect the original scares, but it does release some spirited ideas.

Help Me

Leslie Odem, Jr.
Leslie Odem, Jr.

As he did with his recent Halloween trilogy, director and co-writer David Gordon Green takes The Exorcist down a path that mixes the old with the new. In Halloween, the big treat was seeing Jaime Lee Curtis return as Laurie in real-time, 40-some years after the original John Carpenter classic. The trick was a trilogy that played with all the horror movie tropes and worked the social commentary angle full tilt.

With The Exorcist: Believer, Green brings Ellen Burstyn back as Chris MacNeil, the woman whose daughter, Regan (so famously played by Linda Blair), was possessed by the devil in the original movie. It was 50 years ago almost to the day when The Exorcist terrorized audiences and broke box office records, surpassing The Godfather as the all-time top-grossing movie (at least, that is, until Jaws took a bite out of the record books two years later).

But there is a little different strategy going on here. As Believer unfolds, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a whole new series of demon movies. Instead, it’s a surprisingly thoughtful look at the dark side of life that slips in some uncommonly solid messages.

Those looking for a two-hour fright fest will be sorely disappointed; there are a couple good jolts, but the demon possession portion of the story is rather old hat.

Body and the Blood

The setup is rather simple.

While visiting Haiti, a couple encounters tragedy in the aftermath of an earthquake. Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom, Jr.) is put in an unthinkable situation: either his wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves), or his unborn daughter can be saved. But not both.

As fate would have it, Believer picks up 13 years later in Perry, Georgia, and it’s revealed his daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), is alive and well. But Haiti is still part of their shared, haunted history and Angela slips away into the woods with her best friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), to attempt a séance to speak with her mother.

Of course, that doesn’t go well.

The girls disappear for three days (which is analogous to Jesus having disappeared for three days after the crucifixion), leaving their parents panic-stricken. When they’re finally found on a farm 30 miles away, things simply aren’t the same.

The girls are possessed by the devil and their conditions rapidly deteriorate.


All of that’s fine and dandy. The situation with Angela’s mother adds a level of complexity to the lives and relationships of Victor and Angela. Plus, he’s a “non-believer.” When Victor’s asked why he doesn’t believe in God, he responds with, “I don’t believe in the question.” From his point of view, God is a man-made construct to help people explain things they don’t understand.

The exorcism
The exorcism

On the flipside, Katherine’s family is deeply religious and had intended to have her baptized. Instead, she disappeared.

Throw in a “blessing of protection” from a witch doctor in Haiti, a Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher and another faith healer/witch doctor in Georgia and the setup isn’t for a joke’s punchline, it’s for a surprisingly thought-provoking survey of faith and religion.

That’s most certainly not a prime spoke in the horror movie wheelhouse.

Life Goes On

At 90, Ellen Burstyn looks great and her performance is terrific. But her role is disappointingly small. That said, her return as Chris is still put to effective use. Her daughter’s lived in hiding for decades and she hasn’t seen her basically since that fateful exorcism. (In a sign of the times, Chris also takes a jab at the patriarchy of the day, which excluded her from the exorcism, leaving her only with memories of the possession.)

With reports floating around of Regan’s death, Ellen keeps the faith her daughter is still alive.

And, ultimately, that’s The Exorcist: Believer’s hook. In a spin (of the head), it’s not about the horror. It’s about the faith.

As Chris schools Victor about religion, it’s a remarkably positive and insightful statement for a mainstream movie, not to mention a high-profile horror movie reboot.

Chris has witnessed evil and endured. And that’s her message: People can survive the most traumatic experiences. The whole idea of going to church and having a religion is about creating a society and bringing people together to not only affirm their faith in God, but also in each other.

It’s rather astonishing David Gordon Green and his Halloween co-writer, Danny McBride, took that angle. Not just took the angle, but made it work really well.

Chris goes on to deliver a message of hope: People are born with hope, dreams and a desire to live a happy life. It’s the devil who works obsessively to make people give it all up.

When a horror movie can end with a challenging turn of events amplified by a message as simple, effective and positive as “keep going,” it’s worth stopping and reconsidering what the genre can accomplish.