The Exorcist: Believer is a sequel that shouldn’t exist

Believer is a 'retcon', a movie that ignores or re-imagines events in previous films ... but why?

By Alexander Howard, University of Sydney

Halloween season is here, bringing with it the promise of new horrors at the box office. This year it’s all about renewed cinematic horrors.

Alongside the tenth Saw film, there is The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green, the sixth Exorcist film and the first instalment of a new trilogy which cost US$400 million in worldwide rights alone.

Believer follows certain rules and conventions with roots in William Peter Blatty’s bestselling 1971 novel: think demonic possession, projectile vomiting and spinning heads. Aficionados expect these things from works bearing The Exorcist imprimatur.

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Green’s film manages to hit these markers – albeit with a twist.

Believer is a ‘retcon‘, an example of retroactive continuity: a movie which ignores or re-imagines events in previous films.

Believer follows directly on from the plot of William Friedkin’s masterly 1973 adaptation of Blatty’s book, while disregarding all other films (and the underrated television series) in the franchise.

However, what seems at first blush to be an innovative approach to franchise movie-making is, in truth, nothing more than a creative dead end – a futile exercise in cinematic nostalgia.

Retconning the classics

The retcon is not a new phenomenon (Arthur Conan Doyle’s resurrection of Sherlock Holmes being a case in point), but the concept has become ubiquitous in recent years.

Green has form with the genre. He was also behind the Halloween trilogy (2018–22), drawing on the 1978 film of the same name.

The 2018 Halloween made over US$250 million at the global box office and breathed new commercial life into a desiccated corpse of a franchise.

There were nine Halloween films between the first in 1978 and Green’s in 2018, but Green simply disregards the sequels while subtly tweaking the ending of the original.

Green’s slasher picks up after the first Halloween left off, with scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie Strode.

Read: Laurie Strode and the legacy of the final girl

This is where things take a discernibly revisionist turn. For those who haven’t seen it: the original Halloween climaxes with a confrontation between the teenage babysitter Laurie and the franchise’s unstoppable antagonist, Michael Myers (Nick Castle).

After a seemingly deadly struggle, Michael disappears into thin air. Having evaded capture, Michael then returns in the 1981 sequel to wreak further havoc.

In Green’s revisionary sequel, set 40 years after the original, the story presupposes Michael was captured and imprisoned immediately after his brutal killing spree. Disregarding the sequels, the 2018 iteration begins with Michael still incarcerated.

Suffice it to say, once things get going, it doesn’t take him long to break out.

By pretending there is only one Halloween, Green gives himself space to spruce up the original mythology, while re-imagining it for a modern audience.

(The 2018 film was a financial and critical success. The same, sadly, cannot be said of the two cinematic bombs that followed.)

A pale rehash

This brings us to The Exorcist: Believer.

Green clearly thinks he has found a winning recipe with legacy sequels and retcons.

In keeping with other legacy sequels, both Halloween and Believer rely on hefty doses of celluloid gravitas and pre-existing star power.

Where the 2018 Halloween had Curtis as a damaged, alcoholic Laurie, the 2023 Exorcist has the 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn returning as Chris MacNeil.

In the original, Chris’s daughter Regan (Linda Blair) falls victim to demonic possession. In Believer, Chris, who has written a bestselling memoir about Regan’s possession, is now a leading authority on demonology. She somehow ends up attempting an impromptu exorcism.

It does not go well.

As with the 2018 Halloween, Believer also assumes there is only one Exorcist film in existence. This approach has benefits: it means Green doesn’t have to worry about the notorious 1977 sequel, the worst film of all time.

Believer’s plot focuses on two friends, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) and Angela (Lidya Jewett), who head into the woods to commune with the dead. They vanish. Once reunited with their families, it becomes clear something is amiss. Things go from awful to catastrophic, and various personages and priests try to help. Cue the pea soup.

If this sounds more or less like a pale rehash of Friedkin’s Exorcist, that is because it pretty much is. The only difference is the crushingly dull (and not scary) Believer features not one but two possessed girls.

‘Microwave-reheated comfort food’

In the lead up to the film’s release, Green claimed he wanted to leave his directorial mark on the world of the Exorcist, while simultaneously breaking the rules of what he considers the Holy Grail of horror franchises.

Production Image: A Possessed Girl In A Church.
Ultimately, the film fails on all fronts. © 2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Ultimately, the film fails on all fronts. From the opening shot of two dogs fighting in a Haitian street (a callback to the dramatic prologue of Friedkin’s box-office smash) to the entirely predictable final act, it is clear what we have here is an empty exercise in brand recognition. It is hard not to feel short-changed.

Green’s execrable new Exorcist is not only one of the most breathtakingly cynical movies of recent memory – it serves as an indictment of what cultural theorist Mark Fisher once condemned as the creative paucity of retcon culture in general.

It is very difficult to care about films of this sort, the cinematic equivalent of, in Fisher’s memorable phrase, ‘microwave-reheated comfort food’.

Had he lived long enough, I imagine Friedkin’s head would have been left swivelling at the horror of it all.

And to think: there are two retconned Exorcist sequels still to come. This is truly the stuff of filmic nightmares.

Alexander Howard, Senior Lecturer, Discipline of English, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.