The Exorcist: Believer May Be Changing a Big Part of the Franchise

The first trailer for David Gordon Green and Blumhouse Productions' The Exorcist: Believer is missing a pretty big element from The Exorcist…

The Exorcist: Believer Poster
Photo: Universal Pictures

Whether you saw The Exorcist: Believer trailer over the weekend in the previews before Oppenheimer, or you’re seeing it for the first time today as it’s released online, an impressive amount of callbacks, big and small, to the original 1973 masterpiece is there to greet you like the scarred lettering on Regan MacNeil’s tummy. There’s Ellen Burstyn, of course, finally returning for one of these demonic flicks for the first time in 50 years (and after she passed on John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic). But there’s also the way she’s greeted by one of the demonic girls in the movie, screaming in the exact same cadence as Linda Blair: “Mother, It hurts!” There are also dogs fighting in the sun; preternaturally green eyes peeking through scarred tissue; and more doctors who have absolutely no idea how to treat this type of illness.

Hell, you even have to respect Blumhouse and writer-director David Gordon Green for subtly evoking the infamous original Exorcist teaser, which was subsequently banned in 1973 for risking seizures and just scaring the bejeezus out of theater patrons. Once again, we have trailer punctuated by images of possessed little girls being frozen in strobing black-and-white freeze frames.

Yet one core element is noticeably, even glaringly, absent in The Exorcist: Believer trailer…. where are the priests?!

It’s too early to say for certain, but at least this first teaser is hinting that Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil is taking on the Father Merrin role, with the footage pivoting around Burstyn agreeing to face the demon that once possessed her little girl. She looks as fearless as Max Von Sydow’s aged priest did when he faced the same evil in ’73. Burstyn also gravely intones, “Exorcism is a ritual. Every culture, every religion, they all use different methods. It’s going to take all of them.”

Ad – content continues below

A multicultural and multi-denominational exorcism? If that’s really what happens, it’ll be quite the departure from a story which author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty ended on the page in his acknowledgements by writing, “I would like to add [thank you] to Dr. Bernard M. Wagner of Georgetown University, for teaching me to write, and the Jesuits, for teaching me to think.”

Indeed, Blatty’s original The Exorcist novel and screenplay are dripping with brooding and ponderous Catholicism. It’s the same faith that took him to the Jesuit-founded Georgetown, where The Exorcist is set, and informed much of the emotional dread in his story, both of the Devil and of central character Father Karras (Jason Miller), who struggles with a devastating loss of faith.

The ’73 movie, we would argue, is still terrifying because it is directed by a religious agnostic like William Friedkin. As a skeptic working from a devoutly religious text, Friedkin was forced to approach the first hour of his film with a quasi-documentarian aesthetic—making the scenario so compelling that it would get even him to believe it. Or Chris MacNeil, who in that movie is a highly secular movie star.

Granted, a lot can happen in half-a-century, especially to a woman who saw the devil’s eyes in the face of her young daughter. Chris becoming a believer makes a whole lot of sense. But trying to tell a story designed to essentially proselytize the viewer without the proselytizer being pivotal… would be curious.

We will caution at this point that, having not obviously seen the movie, we cannot speak for certain about this change, and there are several actors listed as priests in the film’s credits, including E.J. Bonilla as Father Maddox and Antoni Corone as Father Phillips. However, as judging by the trailer, they seem a lot less present in the exorcism scenes than Chris or the parents of the possessed children, including Leslie Odom Jr. and Jennifer Nettles.

In a subgenre as well-worn as the “demonic possession” horror movie, it makes sense to try and freshen things up in 2023. And, frankly, there’s never been one as good or scary as The Exorcist. Also there are so many reasons to not want to glorify the Catholic Church in this century. However, The Exorcist is a story created in large to do exactly that. It’s in the marrow of the lore, as well as the fear since Friedkin finds a humanist dread in Miller’s tortured performance, which then heightens the religious fear of hellfire. To jettison that for a more innocuous or inclusive point-of-view kind of misses the whole point of The Exorcist, a film originally marketed around the image of a lone priest standing by himself at night against the fog of evil.

Ad – content continues below

The Exorcist: Believer opens Oct. 13.