William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is considered by many as the scariest and most accomplished horror film in history. It essentially perfected the possession story while setting the blueprint for future forays into the subgenre.
Building a franchise around such a landmark film, though, proved remarkably difficult. Expectations shot up astronomically given the towering presence of the original. Other than the uneven but compelling Exorcist III (released in 1990 and directed by William Peter Blatty, the writer of the 1971 The Exorcist novel the first movie adapted), and the amazing but short-lived The Exorcist 2016 TV series developed by Jeremy Slater, every other attempt at expanding upon the signature horror of Friedkin’s classic has failed spectacularly.
The question now is, will David Gordon Greens’ new Exorcist movie, subtitled Believer, become a possession that’ll reignite audience fears of demonic activity, or will it be another botched exorcism that’ll fade into obscurity along with Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and the the prequel movie Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). Another version of the prequel exists called Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist which was released in 2005 after The Beginning failed to ignite the box office or win over critics. Yes, Warner Brothers released two versions of the same movie, complete with two mostly different casts and two different directors (Renny Harlin worked on Beginning and Paul Schrader on Dominion).
Believer is the first of a planned trilogy that seems to be taking more than a page from Gordon Green’s treatment of the Halloween franchise. The first trailer for the movie established a considerable alteration to the formula concocted before it by showcasing two possessed girls instead of one. This doubling down on the source of horror is an idea that also made its way into the latest Halloween trilogy, to an extent. In the third installment, Halloween Ends, a new character opens the door to the possibility other people can “become” Michael Meyers, thus changing the fabric of the original concept.
The first Believer trailer goes on to show the parents of the possessed girls in a desperate race to try and figure out what’s wrong with their kids. This lands them on the path of someone who’s been through this experience before and who’ll end up helping the parents navigate the possession: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the original survivor parent.
The Chris MacNeil character seems to be cut from the same cloth Laurie Strode was in Gordon Green’s Halloween, Strode being that franchise’s original final girl. She’s a survivor that looks like she’s either been waiting for or has been preemptively preparing for another bout with the same demon that possessed her daughter Regan. Trauma cloaks this character to justify a continuation of the story that ties in to the very first film. From there, we’ll have to see how much is sticks to the Halloween reboot formula and how much it deviates from it.
A few things worry me about this new chapter in the Exorcist franchise, apart from potentially being too similar to the latest Halloween trilogy in structure. First, we’ve gotten a lot of exorcism and demonic possession movies since the first Exorcist. Clichés, genre trappings, and expectations have had ample time to settle in and make themselves known. The first trailer, for instance, shows the possessed girls talking in that overdone multi-voice distortion effect that sounds more like an anonymous caller asking for ransom money than it does a demon.
One of the things that made the first movie’s possession so gut wrenchingly terrifying and memorable was the fact the demon had its own voice, which was masterfully crafted and performed by actress Mercedes McCambridge speaking over Linda Blair’s lines. It created a horror icon and it made things intimate and infinitely more disturbing.
Thus far, the two possessed girls from the Believer trailers come off as more generic, the standard demon kids that spout the usual unholy jargon in the exact voices you’ve come to expect. Fans have gotten a good helping of this already this year alone with The Pope’s Exorcist, though that movie did largely stick to one voice actor for the main demon. In this case it was Ralph Ineson (The VVytch) who took on demon duties. Before The Pope’s Exorcist, though, we had an exorcism episode in FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum, a found footage take on it in The Last Exorcism, an Anthony Hopkins-led movie called The Rite, and the Scott Derickson film The Exorcism of Emily Rose (the better of the bunch).
When Friedkin’s Exorcist came out, no one had seen anything like it. That’s not the case anymore.
My second worry concerns the decision to turn the story into a trilogy. In a sense, The Exorcist already tried this, though not intentionally nor with an eye to create a larger narrative that extended to several movies to get the complete story. Regardless, the result was just not good.
John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is considered one of the worst horror sequels in existence, to the point that Friedkin himself once said to have felt disgusted after watching it (a sentiment shared by Blatty, who called it a humiliating experience). It’s a direct sequel, catching up with Regan a few years after her exorcism to find the demon might not have been cast out entirely (diminishing Father Karras’ sacrifice at the end of the first movie).
The Exorcist III, while boasting some great scares and an underlying sense of unease that carries throughout, didn’t exactly stick the landing. It could’ve bene great, but its ending (of which there are different versions of) felt like it belonged to another movie. Its successes, though, are owed to the new mysteries it creates regarding good and evil and spirituality. It’s not a retread of the first movie. Rather, it’s an expansion that explores similar themes through different avenues and perspectives using the more fleshed out characters from Blatty’s novels.
Having this new set of movies already conceptualized as a trilogy might alleviate these problems, but Gordon Green’s previoustrilogy work with Halloween saw a good idea stretched to its limits in all the wrong ways. Michael Meyers became a blunt metaphor for Trump era divisions, characters were killed for shock value rather than carefully plotted story arcs, and the violence authored by The Shape became gratuitous to the point of losing touch with the narrative.
Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends betrayed the storytelling highs of the first one, killing the momentum early into part 2 and never really catching up again. Believer’s chances of hitting the targets it has in its sights become stronger if each movie justifies its existence without coming across as a cash grab that’s only just tangentially connected to push out another horror trilogy. To score a win, it needs avoid the things that ultimately held Halloween back.
So, should we be excited for Exorcist: Believer? Based on the trailers alone, no. There’s always a chance the odds get flipped and we get a great new take on the material. But whatever expectations we might have now should be taken with caution. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see a good trilogy come of this, especially since the triple-feature approach hasn’t gotten the chance it deserves in horror. Unfortunately, the journey to Believer carries a lot of baggage that can weigh it down considerably. More excitement could’ve been afforded to it had it not been an Exorcist movie but a whole new venture into possession horror, one that stands on its own demonic legs. Then again, anything has the capacity to surprise. Breaking the cycle and giving audiences something worth screaming at, or potentially fainting from, will be welcomed with open arms. The road to that, I fear, is looking quite bumpy.
The Exorcist: Believer opens October 6th, 2023 nationwide.