In July 2021, it was announced that Universal Pictures had spent $400 million to acquire rights to The Exorcist. Planning a trilogy, with two sequels that would be exclusive to the studio’s streamer Peacock, they collaborated with horror outfit Blumhouse in a deal that essentially seemed rush to match Netflix’s then-groundbreaking pact to produce two Knives Out sequels. Well, in the two years since—where Wall Street has realized the long-game business plan of streaming was actually, to quote George Herbert Walker Bush, “voodoo economics”—the first entry of this (hopefully not-realized) horror trilogy lands in theaters with a not-insignificant amount of pressure to recoup the investment.
Perhaps it’s a little cynical to discuss business matters at the beginning of a film review, but I think it’s worthwhile when that adjective also describes the cinematic venture at hand. I suppose props to Jason Blum and co. on their further capitalist savvy by saving money crafting the first Hollywood movie written and directed by artificial intelligence, the end product so wholly unoriginal and lifeless that it’s maybe even an insult to robots to say it was their fault. In fact, the “synopsis for a legacy sequel to The Exorcist” result I got from ChatGPT (called The Exorcist: Resurgence) involving a satanic cult sounded a lot more exciting than this dross.
Beginning in Port-au-Prince to rhyme with the original’s Iraq prologue, photographer Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) has an idyllic getaway with his pregnant wife cut short when (presumably) the January 2010 earthquake hits, leaving them in a situation where only his unborn child makes it out alive. Thirteen years later and in a steady, if slightly melancholy, single-father situation with his Lisa Simpson-esque overachieving daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett), strange matters soon begin to arise. Angela and the young daughter of another family, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), both disappear one day. Despite reemerging a few days later visibly disturbed and physically ravaged, the medical examination shows no sign of abuse––the film’s one unsettling scene. Then they both start speaking in scary voices, and you get the gist. In our little The Force Awakens/Halloween 2018 moment, the atheist Victor has to turn to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, who deserves kudos on getting that big a paycheck for five minutes of screentime), now a lonely best-selling author and exorcism self-help guru estranged from her once-possessed daughter. (Do we think in a fit of fan-service someone might pop up for a maudlin cameo at the end?)
Though, back to the original pitch of this new trilogy: it makes too much sense if it was meant to be part of a conceived streaming product, to the point that watching the film did genuinely suggest watching a dull movie in my living room; I started propping my feet on the rail in front of me, glancing over at the snoring patron sitting the row behind, and staring at empty seats in the front instead of looking at the screen. I might’ve gotten up and started walking around the auditorium had it been just a little more empty. My boredom turned to genuine anger by the climax—when, yes, a little girl talks in a scary voice, levitates, and then (the kicker) vomits computer-generated black goo. So content is the film with doing nothing new, rendering no fresh dynamic to an oft-imitated classic other than—what if, and insert a Drake HOLD UP gif—TWO girls were possessed, that it feels apt to call this a new low in intellectual property cynicism.
One initially thinks the low-key tone is a deliberate choice on director David Gordon Green’s end to match the original. After all, part of what made William Friedkin’s masterpiece so scary was its chilly procedural approach (the discomfort of every detail of Regan’s MRI scan for one). Yet the low-hum paired with drab digital instead serves to make this streaming-service white noise. Virtually its only formal distinction is cranking up the noise in its climax, if just to distract you from the fact that nothing scary or thrilling is actually going on.
Green and his team (or rather the software they used to generate this film) can’t even fill their margins in any compelling fashion; only the occasionally interesting-looking actor in a bit part seems to contain the traces of that director’s long-gone Southern poet period. You’d think the director, due to his background, would maybe realize the tension between the two parties stricken by demonic possession being a Church-attending white nuclear family and a Black single father. But by the time Burstyn was monologuing about the power of church bringing people together to syrupy music, not only did I wonder if I was watching one of the worst movies ever made, but pondering what the hell happened to mainstream horror. Frankly, you’re better off watching the cold open of Scary Movie 2 or the 1990 Leslie Nielsen parody Repossessed for some scares.
The Exorcist: Believer is now in theaters.