Film review: Exorcist: Believer

Believe us, it sucks – the sixth film to bear the Exorcist name is truly diabolical...

Film review: Exorcist: Believer
Nick Ruskell

Literally the only good thing to come out of the existence of Exorcist: Believer is the return of Ellen Burstyn to reprise her role as Chris MacNeil, mother of possessed child Regan in the original 1973 masterpiece, after half a decade of turning it down. Nothing at all to do with her performance, or anything else that happens onscreen, but because after initially declining, and being offered increasingly large fees, she eventually accepted and started a scholarship program for budding actors with the money.

That’s it. That’s all the good there is to say. Nothing actually within the movie is worth bothering with, or worthy of being attached to the story whose name it bears. It is an un-scary, un-shocking, un-thought-provoking two hours of obvious first-day horror mush that unconvincingly parrots the most iconic screengrabs of its parent without actually understanding it. Congratulations, though, on enabling 1977’s II: The Heretic to finally rescind its Worst Movie Ever crown. It is absolute shit.

Two teenage girls, Angela and Katherine, head into the woods one afternoon after school to fiddle with séance-y magic. Angela’s mother had died before she was born, caught in an earthquake in Haiti while pregnant, leaving her father Victor to decide and instruct doctors who they should save, as doing one will kill the other. After attempting and failing to contact her, the two girls reappear on a farm 30 miles up the road. They think they’ve been hours, actually they’ve been three days.

They’re possessed. Worried parents have to un-possess them. A neighbour tells Victor about a book on exorcism, written by Chris MacNeil. She arrives, dropping in that she and Regan are estranged, her daughter disapproving of her book. A bunch of fucking rubbish pastiches of old bits happen without any of the terror or dread. There’s a lukewarm showdown. Eventually, mercifully, it ends, with a final laughable bit of nonsense reminding you that this is the first of a proposed trilogy. Actually, that’s probably the most scary thing here.

If someone told you Believer had started out as its own possession movie cranked out for the furthest reaches of Netflix, but ended up being bought and re-nosed as part of the franchise in the final third of filming with references rushed in, you would accept it without question. The impression is that it was written having second-screened through the original, looking up for the green sick and head-turning, probably intending to read William Peter Blatty’s book at some point, but never actually taking it off the shelf.

Fundamentally, it misses the point that the original was the story of a priest, Father Damien Karras, having an existential crisis of faith, almost challenging God to prove his existence via encountering a demon. Victor’s internal struggle here gets what feels like a whole 10 seconds of screen time and comes as quick as it goes. In a film about a battle between the forces of Heaven and Hell, there’s actually very little conflict.

Having focussed so hard on the possession and being so desperate to get to the big ending, when it arrives you’re not only so bored you don’t care who wins, it’s also pathetic. A group of characters from different religious backgrounds have to join together like spiritual X-Men to deal with some quite easy-looking challenges thrown up by the two girls, while a hesitant priest’s eventual arrival may as well be a CGI John Wayne appearing on horseback firing a six-shooter into the air. And when it’s all done and is wrapping up what it thinks is a profound and challenging ending, it makes sure to cover it all in worthy, worthy, worthy speeches about good and evil.

Even the references feel out of tune. When Angela asks Chris if she’d like to know where “your c**ting daughter” is, a callback to one of Regan/the demonic Pazuzu’s foulest outbursts, it’s not as clever or shocking as it thinks. Fifty years ago, in more proper times, those words coming out of a 12-year-old Linda Blair (albeit via a voice actor) was an eyebrow-raiser. Here it just sounds like a line written by someone who doesn’t understand how to swear without trying too hard about it.

There’s also the real-life issue that most people don't actually care about The Devil anymore. There was a taboo in meddling with dark forces back when people still went to Church, which amplified the fear of the film’s subject and made people believe the rumours about its cursed production. The supernatural ones, we mean, not the stories about late director William Friedkin’s eccentric violence on set – pointing firearms at actors to make them look suitably scared; having a stage hand yank on a rope around Ellen Burstyn’s waist so hard her resultant screamed curse was directed at him and caught on film; slapping William O’Malley in the face to shake him up before giving Damien his last rites.

Awful as this behaviour is, you can’t imagine anyone involved here actually being invested or passionate enough about it to even ask for a second take. There’s no atmosphere, no mystery, no tension, and no proper connection to what it wants to be. It is the most annoying person at the Halloween party shouting “your mother sucks cocks in Hell” on the bus home.

“She never forgave me for writing it,” says Chris of why Regan hasn’t spoken to her for years following her book. She shouldn’t forgive anyone else involved in sullying her name making this, either. Nor, in fact, should The Devil.

Verdict: 1/5

Exorcist: Believer is out now via Universal

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