Let’s hope we can figure out that horror movies don’t need to shoehorn in legacy characters any longer. Or at least if they’re going to do it as lazily as The Exorcist: Believer did. The Exorcist is a smash-classic, one of the best movies of all-time. It needs no introduction other than “how old were you when you first watched it?”

So here we are, decades after that first movie, William Friedkin has passed away, and David Gordon Green has taken up the mantle for another Exorcist film. This time, connecting the two by way of Ellen Burstyn, who played Chris MacNeil in that first horrific film. Joining her are Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia O’Neill, and Lidya Jewett. There are other characters, but the plot centers around those three performances. Victor Fielding lost his pregnant wife in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which is shown in graphic detail at the beginning of this film. It’s really one of the most terrifying scenes, because it depicts a real-life tragedy of nature. His daughter, Angela, was born because the Haitian doctors offered Victor the choice between the two. Angela is an adolescent, and her friends get the bright idea to go try to talk to her mom’s spirit out in the woods.

Katherine (O’Neill) and Angela head out, lie to their parents, and disappear for what they think was a couple of hours, but in reality was three days. They start showing strange behavior after their return, which leads to dark and violent tendencies. It all leads to the titular exorcism after the parents exhaust all medical options.

You might be asking yourself, how does Chris MacNeil fit into all of this? Well, after the events of the first movie, she wrote a book about her experiences. She devoted herself to learning all about various exorcisms across cultures. She’s an exorcism expert.

That is where the whole legacy sequel thing rears its ugly head into The Exorcist: Believer. It didn’t need it. The original film is terrifying, but it doesn’t have a weight on it like the Scream or Halloween movies do with old characters. Sure, Universal has been begging and pleading Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair to come back for a sequel for years, but audiences don’t really need it, nor want it. They want a movie that scares them.

Is The Exorcist: Believer Scary?

No, it’s not that scary. It has moments where it’s tense and atmospheric and uses jump scares, but the tone of the movie plays off more like a thriller or a drama than a horror movie. In a way, it does act like the original, preferring to burn slowly until a massive third act. But the movie takes a lot to get there. It all comes back to attaching the big glowing red idea that this is a legacy sequel to the film. It weighs it down. This movie didn’t need the extra weight of carrying along as a sequel to one of the best and scariest horror movies ever.

The performances and makeup really save this film though. Outside of Ellen Burstyn going through the motions and collecting a paycheck, Leslie Odom Jr. is a force. He’s what drives the entire film and makes it into something good. He’s level but he dials it up when he needs to. There’s a couple of scenes where you’d think it would be the natural “man questions his whole beliefs”-type of scene. Instead, Odom Jr. takes us in a different direction. His performance is aided by a script that is sometimes good, but at other points is just plain confusing. There’s a lot of weight that could have been cut out.

Olivia O’Neil and Lidya Jewett are on another level, though. Basically, any of the actual scary scenes in the film, they’re involved with. It looks like they’ve been to Hell and back, which reflects in their performances. They have to do a lot of pantomime and mirroring one another. The blank, expressionless faces they give when the possession is taking hold are frightening.

This movie really feels like they had a finished script and knew that Ellen Burstyn wasn’t going to be in it, so they just rolled with it. Only to find out that she finally accepted their offer to do a sequel and had to add her back in. Her character and all the excess baggage of being a legacy sequel didn’t need to be here. Outside of that, it has some pretty inventive plotlines. We don’t normally get a possession-type movie with two people being possessed at the same time. The movie makes you question your own faith and what it means. Is it about the actual belief or the people that you believe it with? It raises some hard questions about parenthood.

Those could have been explored more, but instead the movie focuses on being a sequel to The Exorcist. Take a look at other films from this year like Evil Dead Rise. It has some from the original Evil Dead movies, but for the most part plays as an extension of that universe. This movie, could have done that, merely mentioned “hey there was a high profile exorcism in the ’70s”, and gone on with the characters and themes.

Normally that feels very cheap to do with a sequel to a horror movie like this, but here, it would have worked so much better. That bogging down makes some of the more confusing scenes that don’t have a lot of explanation even worse. Some of the stuff with the alternative Christian/Catholic exorcism styles could have been explained a lot better. Why are they drawing this stuff on the ground? How did that smoke make the demon mad? A lot of it is unexplained and it just ends up confusing the audience even more.

There’s a good movie hiding somewhere in The Exorcist: Believer, but it doesn’t get to come out because it’s shackled by the brand of “legacy sequel”. What we end up getting is a movie that isn’t quite scary enough, doesn’t give the new characters enough to do, and just ends up as good, but not great.

The Exorcist: Believer releases in theaters on October 6th, 2023.

For more on Horror, make sure to check out THS Fright-A-Thon, the Halloween content marathon.

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