‘The Exorcist: Believer’ lets the fear creep up on you

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ lets the fear creep up on you | Soho House

David Gordon Green’s sequel is a sinister homage to the original that expands the realms of religion and into the patriarchy, says Hanna Flint

Saturday 7 October 2023   By Hanna Flint

You’ve got to give props to David Gordon Green. The American filmmaker seems to be on a mission to revive the most iconic horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s, and so far the results haven’t been half bad. 

He hopped, skipped and jumped past every other Halloween sequel to deliver his own trilogy of films that served as a direct continuation from John Carpenter’s 1978 original slasher; the OG scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis included as Laurie Strode, now a locked and loaded grandma. The ‘trauma’-laden 2018 Halloween hit harder than the bombastic follow-up Halloween Kills, but Halloween Ends eventually offered a satisfying, gloriously gory finale to warrant the comeback in the first place.

Green is also set to bring back Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites for an HBO series continuation of the 1987 Hellraiser film. It’s said he’ll expand the mythology of these pain-seeking extra-dimensional beings, but first he was compelled to write and direct a pair of sequels to William Friedkin’s iconic horror, The Exorcist

Green’s The Exorcist: Believer certainly arrives at a pretty resonant time. The original 1973 film – adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 supernatural horror novel of the same name – is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. After giving it a rewatch myself this week, I can confirm that it remains a masterfully disturbing piece of cinema as it follows the barbaric possession of an actress’s young daughter and the Catholic priest’s efforts to save her life and soul. It’s not just an impressive film for the horror genre, but across the big-screen board. The Exorcist makes more than good on the chilling scares, the terrifying bloodshed, the potent familial emotion, chillingly realistic special effects, powerful performances, perfect horror shots, and an unforgettable score that continues to inspire and influence filmmakers to this day.

If you’d like to know what went down during the ‘cursed’ production (several people’s deaths have been linked to the film and one set mysteriously caught fire during the shoot), I highly recommend Mark Kermode’s 1998 documentary, The Fear Of God: 25 Years Of The Exorcist – available on BBC iPlayer in the UK. 

‘The Exorcist: Believer’ lets the fear creep up on you | Soho House

Kermode brings the once warring Friedkin and Blatty together, as well as stars Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin) and, of course, Linda Blair (Regan) to talk in candid detail about how they pulled off one of the most controversial movies of all time. The late Friedkin did too good a job at convincing audiences of Regan’s possession that many ran to church after the credits rolled – if not earlier. Churches called for it to be banned and it wasn't available in the UK on home video until 1999 out of fear children would be traumatised if they had access to it.

The culture – and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – has come a long way since the influence of that sort of censorship, so The Exorcist: Believer probably won’t cause mass hysteria. But it is an intelligent and scary sequel that manages to pay homage to the original, while also establishing itself as an Exorcist film for our times.

For this instalment, two 13-year-old best friends, Katherine (Olivia Marcum) and Angela (Lidya Jewett), are victims of evil after trying to contact Angela’s dead mother. She died in Haiti after being injured in an earthquake, leaving her husband Victor (Leslie Odom Jr) to look after their baby girl. Where Katherine’s parents are god-fearing Christians, Victor isn’t much of a believer in anything. Of course, that world view is flipped upside down when Angela starts acting more demonic than angelic. The young actresses impressively sell their possessed characters; dead stares, ominous movements and menacing line delivery to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up – even if the devil’s profanity is a lot tamer this time around. 

Green doesn’t rely on an abundance of jumpscares to freak you out, instead he carefully builds a sinister atmosphere to allow the fear to slowly creep up on you. However, it would be remiss of him not to include some callbacks to the original beyond having Burstyn brilliantly reprise her role as Chris MacNeil. Is it overflowing with bodily fluids? Yes. Does someone’s head get twisted round? Of course. Is there a subliminal shot of a demonic face? For sure. Do we hear ‘the power of Christ compels you’? It would be rude not to. 

But what’s most compelling about this instalment is how it expands the religious elements beyond the Catholic church and, as MacNeil says herself, ‘the patriarchy’. The girls’ salvation is not in the hands of two world-weary white dudes with a lot of Catholic guilt. Instead, both men and women followers of Catholic, Baptist and vodou worship are part of the exorcism process. Ann Dowd, in particular, delivers a stirring performance as Victor’s neighbour and nurse with her own secrets for the devil to exploit. I can’t believe I had tears in my eyes watching the sixth sequel to The Exorcist, but Dowd and Odom Jr were deeply affecting and moving. The power of great acting compelled me, I guess.

So, make sure you don your St Joseph medallion and strap yourself in for the Exorcist franchise this spooky season at Soho House. 

The Exorcist: Believer is showing at Soho House screening rooms this week. See the full schedule here.