A United Nations of Exorcism: ‘The Exorcist: Believer’

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Pretty sure I don’t have to offer a summary of the 1973 film The Exorcist, which you probably saw and, even if you didn’t, could probably write as good a synopsis of it as I could. But let me remind you that the poor possessed girl from the late William Friedkin’s blockbuster film (based upon the late William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel) was named Regan, played by Linda Blair.

David Gordon Green, the director of a new iteration of the series, The Exorcist: Believer, has said Miss Blair declined to play a significant role in the new film, although she served as a “technical advisor.” As NBC Insider gushed:

you’d be hard-pressed to find a better person who truly understands what it’s like to be an innocent teenage girl spewing unimaginable profanities, taunts, and even torrents of pea soup [vomiting] at concerned parents, priests, and medical professionals.

Not the first time I’ve thought the Peacock Network was becoming a bit pea-cockeyed.

This time, however, the projectile vomiting more resembles black bean soup.

Okay, so now you’re thinking, Here goes Miner! Off on one of his tirades about another lousy movie. Why does he even bother watching and writing about them?

Hold on! The Exorcist: Believer (hereafter just Believer) is not a lousy movie. It’s not as well made and acted as the original, but you wouldn’t expect that.

Going into the film, I did expect another Blumhouse jump-scare splatterfest. Blumhouse is a studio that specializes in horror and is run like an old-time Hollywood studio, churning out movies at a frantic pace, so insatiable is the public wish to be grossed-out and freaked-out. Not exactly the romance and derring-do of the 1930s.

It’s the allure of the old funhouse – the amusement park attraction that has forever made clowns frightening. And if you see the film, I promise you there’s a jump-scare that’s good as can be. That may seem frivolous. But when a director can get you focused on a procedural moment, and then make you jump out of your seat, he knows his craft.

The film opens in Haiti, a majority Catholic nation with a small but not-insubstantial soupçon of Voodoo (there known as Vodou). A photographer, Victor Fielding (a superb Leslie Odom Jr.) is snapping pictures on a beach while his pregnant wife, Sorenne (Tracey Graves), wanders among nearby street vendors, until a boy entices her into a parlor where a Vodou woman blesses her unborn child. We know this can’t be good.

Alone back in the hotel where the Fieldings are staying, Sorenne is serenely happy – until an earthquake strikes and causes the building to collapse. Victor finds her, rushes her to a hospital, but it’s too late. Sorenne dies, but their daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), is born and survives.

The possessed girls, like women with too much Botox, come to resemble one another.

About a dozen years later back home in America, Angela is a typical kid. She and best friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), decide to wander off into the woods to try a little “innocent” Vodou of their own, hoping to reunite Angela with her late mother.

They disappear for three days, but have no memory of being gone for more than a couple of hours. They’re found huddling together in a barn.

In a hospital, the doctors and nurses find no evidence of sexual abuse, though something has scarred and burned their feet. But it doesn’t take long for one nurse, Ann (played by Ann Dowd) to discover why both girls are sullen and violent.

They’re possessed of course.

As in the 1973 film, physicians poke and prod and speculate. But nurse Ann, who happens to be Victor Fielding’s irascible neighbor (and was once a postulant in a convent), convinces Victor to visit Chris MacNeil, an expert in exorcism. She should be. She’s the mother of Regan MacNeil, who had the devil cast out of her 50 years before.

Yes, that Regan – from the original movie. And Ellen Burstyn reprises her role as the beleaguered mom. She’s written a book about the horror of 1973, and she means business, having studied exorcisms around the world.

So, Victor brings her to meet the girls, and it doesn’t go well for Chris.

[I pause: Universal, the principal studio behind this film, spent $400 million just for the rights to the Exorcist franchise. Believer is the first of a projected trilogy.]

Anyway, Victor and the parents of Katherine (played by Norbert Leo Butz and Jennifer Nettles), along with nurse Ann, Dr. Beehibe (Okwui Okpokwasili), who used to be an oncologist but is now a spiritualist, a Protestant preacher (Raphael Sbarge), and another neighbor (Danny McCarthy) nail a couple of chairs to the floor of Victor’s house, strap in the girls, grab a Bible and Ann’s dusty copy of De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam, and they set to work.

Wait! No Catholic priest?

Well, God knows they tried. Young Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla) – who was brought to see the poor girls by nurse Ann – is convinced they really are possessed, but his bishop wouldn’t touch this case with a censer on a twelve-foot pole. So, young Father B. comes alone to the exorcism house, apologizes, and sits outside in his car praying.

So, this interfaith. . .this diverse. . .this United Nations of an exorcism goes on, and you know what? It ain’t workin’.

But wait! Here comes Fr. B. after all! The Catholic cavalry! Or is it Calvary?

There follows a twist. And it hurts. A lot.

It will be interesting to see if this Exorcist reboot can really work without Catholic priests. Chris MacNeill speechifies a couple of times about how exorcism is known in every culture. Sure, and Kumbaya!

But you’ll excuse me if I point out that we Catholics are the ones who actually cast out those damned demons!

Still, as my wife said, “I didn’t think the film would be that good – theology aside.”


The Exorcist: Believer is rated R for unimaginable profanities, taunts, and torrents of black bean soup. P.S. We mistakenly bought IMAX tickets. Don’t.


You may also enjoy:

Mr. Miner’s Men with Beards: A Review of ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’

Michael Pakaluk’s Who Is Like God?

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.