“THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER”
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Leslie Odom, Jr., Ann Dowd, Lidya Jewett, Olivia Marcum, Norbert Leo Butz, Jennifer Nettles
Written by Peter Sattler and David Gordon Green
Story by Scott Teems, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green
Based on characters created by William Peter Blatty
Directed by David Gordon Green
Produced by Jason Blum, David C. Robinson and James G. Robinson

By Matt Neufeld
October 5, 2023

“The Exorcist: Believer” is an embarrassingly awful new attempted-horror movie that registers only as just the very latest sad, depressing entry in a too-long nightmare string of modern-day horror movies that continually prove several unfortunate things: that most horror sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings are awful and literally didn’t need to be made and literally shouldn’t have been made; that two generations of filmmakers have generally completely lost the ability to make good horror movies; that studios need to stop greenlighting these awful movies; that director David Gordon Green needs to leave the horror genre completely and get back to his early-career dramatic independent film roots; and that schlock, trash and Z-movie producer Jason Blum also needs to completely leave the horror genre once and for all.

“The Exorcist: Believer” is awful and terrible–amateurish, even–on every filmic level. The trashy, difficult-to-watch-or-enjoy Z-movie is poorly acted by just about every lead and supporting actor, and the thespian infractions include actors failing to elicit basic emotions, failing to generate likeability, chemistry or even presence, failing to establish true characterization and even failing to deliver decent emotional line readings; a story, plot, subplot and screenplay that are cliched, unoriginal, uninspired, trite, predictable, repetitive, derivative, stilted, cluttered, muddled, non-scary and non-suspenseful; amateurish direction that is equally cliched, uninspired, stilted, confusing and wholly lacking in any obvious ability to generate horror, suspense, tension, fright, fear, scares, thrills, chills or even basic mood and atmosphere; and overall production that is generally crass, rushed, hurried, amateurish, crude, low-budget and just depressingly dreary, downer and depressing.

Whenever a ridiculously horrible movie like “The Exorcist: Believer” is released like a gypsy’s midnight curse on the equally-cursed public, we all have to just stop and wonder, directly and appropriately and, yes, professionally: Why do Hollywood suits continue to green-light (approve for production) these awful, unneeded movies? Why do clueless filmmakers continue to desperately rip off, desecrate and feed off of classic horror films, in the process denigrating and de-valuating and devolving these original classic films? And why, in the name of heaven and hell and Hollywood, can’t newer, younger filmmakers produce, direct, write and act in above-average horror films? And why can’t Hollywood–and the rest of the world–get producers, directors, writers and actors to come up with new, original, fresh, inspired and non-cliched horror movies?

Watching most modern-day horror movies, one is tempted to think that some evil witch, wizard, demon, mystic, seer, ghoul or gypsy somewhere, somehow actually cast an evil curse on them all from the deepest depths of filmic hell. Yes, it’s that bad. All you have to do is watch one-hundred of the biggest-name horror films from the past twenty-five years and then watch one-hundred of the biggest name horror films from the previous forty years, and you’ll easily, clearly see the difference. It’s night and day, or nightmare and daylight, in the differences in overall quality. It’s just true: Most modern-day horror films are just plain bad, and many of them are just embarrassingly, amateurishly bad.

Thus, for the thousandth time, and in the wake of the unholy release of “The Exorcist: Believer,” it does need to be repeated: There was no need for most–not all, but most–of the unoriginal, repetitive and cliched sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings of the following original films: “Psycho,” “Night of Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “Carrie,” “The Amityville Horror,” “The Omen,” “King Kong,” “Alien,” “An American Werewolf in London,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “Phantasm,” “Poltergeist,” “Hellraiser,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Saw,” “Scream,” “Resident Evil,” “Underworld,” and “Child’s Play,” just to name a select few. And the world and underworld have certainly not needed several hundred, if not several thousand, tired, unoriginal, moronically repetitive versions of the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Invisible Man, Mummy, vampire and Bigfoot stories. There have been notable exceptions to all of this, of course, but the notable exceptions have been very few and very far between.

Thus, that said, sigh and alas, that brings us back to “Believer,” unfortunately.

“Believer” tries to tell a story about two modern-day young girls, about twelve or thirteen years old, who one day take a walk in the woods, initiate some type of apparent voodoo spell with the hope of contacting one of the girl’s mother, who died giving birth to her, and then promptly disappear for three days. When they are finally found, of course they are cursed and possessed and they start to too-closely resemble and rip off poor Regan MacNeil from the original 1971 book “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty and the 1973 film of the same name directed by William Friedkin. The beleaguered parents of the drooling, ranting, vomiting, head-twisting girls subsequently plan a religious exorcism ritual. And the many problems with “Believer” start right there–with the basic premise, story and plot of the dern movie. It’s a fifty-years-later celebration of the original 1973 release of “The Exorcist” movie–and this is all that screenwriters Peter Sattler and David Gordon Green, who also messily directed this mess, could come up with–more possessed young girls and an exorcism?! Really? That’s it? Are you kidding?! That’s what you came up with? There’s even two more people credited with a lame “story by” credit, Scott Teems and Danny McBride. Really–four people worked on the story and script for a new “Exorcist” movie, to be released fifty years after the original film, and all they could come up with was MORE possessed young girls and ANOTHER exorcism? Say WHAT? Yes, all capital letters there, deservedly.

Unbelievable. And unbelievably lame, unoriginal and disappointing.

On top of the lame story, plot and script, the entire film lacks any sense of horror, dread, scariness, frightfulness, terror, suspense or even just basic chiller-thriller creature-feature monster-movie B-movie horror fun. In fact, the dreary movie isn’t any fun at all. It’s slow-moving, jerkily and annoyingly edited, plot holes are obvious and irritating, even for a horror movie, and the movie rarely pauses for anything that closely resembles real adult conversation, characterization, character development, introspection, insight, perspective, context, meaning or intellectual analysis of the deeper meanings of possession, exorcism, demons, heaven and hell, religion or even good versus evil. There’s one intelligent passage that attempts to delve into some of this and something intelligent–but, bizarrely, this monologue arrives literally at the end of the movie, but by then its all far too little and far, far, far too late.

The acting is stilted and lacking in relatable characterization. This is one of those annoying films where everyone communicates on some juvenile level by annoyingly yelling and screaming at each other in unjustified, weird, childish rantings and ravings. Thus, no one, except just two sympathetic characters, is relatable or likeable. Even the characters of the two possessed girls are never really, fully drawn out or fleshed out. Thus, the audience doesn’t really connect well to the girls on a genuinely sympathetic level. And the parents are all distant and annoying–and annoyingly acted. Leslie Odom, Jr., as the father of one of the possessed girls, delivers just a bland, one-note, monotonous performance, dragging down the movie.

One of those two somewhat-solid characterizations comes from actress Ann Dowd, who plays Ann, a next-door neighbor to Odom’s father character, Victor, and who is conveniently also a nurse who ends up helping to treat the possessed girls at a hospital. Dowd isn’t stellar, but she’s a welcome, grounded, somewhat-relatable and somewhat-likeable character.

The other somewhat-likeable character is, lo and behold, Chris MacNeil, the mother from the original “Exorcist” book and movie, played by none other than actress Ellen Burstyn, 90, who played MacNeil in the 1973 movie. Yes, it’s interesting to see Burstyn come back to a memorable role fifty years later, but the dunderheaded “Believer” filmmakers sadly can’t even get this right. Burstyn’s character is poorly written, she’s not given much to do, and Burstyn is strangely wasted here. Chris MacNeil should have been the very core, center and foundation–and hero–of this new movie, but she’s strangely, oddly none of the above. In fact, MacNeil spends most of the movie stupidly, non-dramatically sidelined with an injury that occurs so idiotically, it’s all just baffling and depressing. Thus, the filmmakers stupidly ruin what could have been and what should have been the best aspect of the movie.

The parents of the possessed girls contact MacNeil to help them with their case. They know about her because she wrote a book about her previous experiences with her daughter. When Victor visits MacNeil, MacNeil explains that Regan was upset about the book, the mother and daughter are estranged and they haven’t seen each other or spoken to each other in years. Even that story point is depressing. Regan and her mother should have been the center of this movie, throughout the movie.

When you get a veteran, acclaimed actress of Burstyn’s caliber, knowledge and experience, and then you completely waste that casting, character and characterization, and you treat Burstyn and her character with such unprofessional disrespect and ridiculousness, it’s just a sign of amateurishness. This mistreatment of the Chris MacNeil character also brings down the entire movie.

Director and co-writer David Gordon Green also directed the latest “Halloween” trilogy–all of which were equally awful, unoriginal and unneeded. This career change for Green is baffling. Early in his career, he directed some genuinely original, high-quality independent dramatic films. Again, he needs to get back to working on independent dramas. Working on lame, disappointing, amateurish horror sequels is no way to go through life, son.

And Blum—well, the same directive applies.

Equally unbelievable among all of this Exorcistmania is that there were four previous “Exorcist” sequels and a television series. None of them were very good. This ring of dishonor includes “The Exorcist II: The Heretic,” from 1977; “The Exorcist III,” from 1990; two versions of the next film, “Exorcist: The Beginning,” from 2004 and “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist,” from 2005; and a Fox network television series, “The Exorcist,” that ran for two unmemorable seasons in 2016 and 2017.

Please, Fathers Merrin and Karras, if you’re listening from the great beyond, make it stop. Exorcise these “Exorcist” demons from all current and future film makers! The power of cinema compels you! The power of cinema compels you! The power of cinema compels you!

Any and every time something “Exorcist” occurs, people still start yammering and going on about the real-life story that originally inspired Blatty to write his 1971 novel. First of all, the real-life story had absolutely nothing to do with an actress and her daughter; a Georgetown house; the famed Georgetown Exorcist steps; or, in general, much of just about anything else in the original book and movie.

In reality, in 1949, a 14-year-old boy named Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, from Cottage City in Prince George’s County, Maryland, started acting up and acting strangely. His parents thought he was possessed and some religious exorcism rituals were performed in the Washington, D C. area and in St. Louis. The acting up soon stopped. Hunkeler, to his great credit, went on to work as a highly-talented and brilliant engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where he worked on the Apollo moon missions and programs, registered a scientific patent as part of his science and research work, and ended up logging a most impressive nearly forty years of hard work with NASA. During his career, Hunkeler worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Hunkeler retired from NASA in 2001.

The New York Post reported in 2021 that Hunkeler’s most recent companion–the Post’s word–told the Post that Hunkeler “never believed that he was the victim of satanic possession and he shunned religion,” according to the Post. From the Post: “He said he wasn’t possessed, it was all concocted,” said the companion. “He said, ‘I was just a bad boy.”

Those quotes from Hunkeler’s companion from 2021 are about the closest anyone is going to get to Hunkeler’s comments on his past history. Hunkeler never gave an on-the-record, published interview on his case. Wisely, he concentrated on his brilliant, successful career as a NASA engineer, scientist and researcher.

The best account of Hunkeler’s real-life case remains the incredibly, impressively well-researched, well-documented, well-written and well-told investigative reporting series of articles about Hunkeler from 1999 in Strange magazine by Greenbelt author Mark Opsasnick. Opsasnick was the first reporter to break the complete, investigative, documented story about the true identity of Hunkeler and about other various aspects of Hunkeler’s case. His 1999 Strange magazine series remains riveting reading to this day.

Hunkeler died in 2020, one month short of his 86th birthday.

William Peter Blatty, who at one point lived in Bethesda, Maryland, died in 2017 at the age of 89.

William Friedkin just died on August 7, 2023, at the age of 87.

As this reviewer is writing this review, the AMC cable television channel is airing Friedkin’s original 1973 film “The Exorcist.” The film is still terrifying, fifty years later.

The Exorcist steps remain in Georgetown, just as they were fifty years ago. There’s a little plaque at the bottom of the steps, noting the use of the steps as a scene location in the film.

And NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is still in Greenbelt.

The scariest thing about “The Exorcist: Believer” is that those clueless filmmakers Blum and Gordon have announced that they plan to make another two “Exorcist” movies, with one of them, “The Exorcist: Deceiver,” scheduled to be released on April 18, 2025.

Fathers Merrin and Karras, are you listening? Please, make it stop, already! The power of cinema compels you! The power of cinema compels you! The power of cinema compels you!

###

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.