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Drive in Saturday Tuesday Movie Review Double Feature Part 1: The Exorcist Believer

It was back to the Malta Drive in this weekend for the second week in a row— no ice cream but two movies I was willing to actually see. The late-season drive-in crowd is getting sparser, but the 7:00 PM start time for the first movie leaves enough time for me to see the second without falling asleep (well, that’s the theory).

Let me get this out of the way first— the second movie, The Expendables 4, was the better of the two movies. And yes, despite pretty much nonstop action and a 9:30 start time, I dozed off for parts of it. That says more about me than it says about the movie, but maybe it says something about the movie.

I’m almost sorry to say I was awake for the entirety of The Exorcist Believer. Yet another dull supernatural horror movie. Yet another movie that dresses up magic and spell casting as religion. Yet another attempt to make a sequel to the original, nearly 50-year old Exorcist, which has actually had many sequels (that apparently didn’t happen) and was on its own actually a great movie.

Believer has too many problems to enumerate here, but I’ll highlight some of its worst offenses. To begin with, while most horror movies contain within them some sort of moral lesson, this movie makes a go at several, but in the process crosses its own wires. As the name implies, there’s one character’s very predictable struggle with “belief,” which of course in this movie is just stipulated to be a virtue. He gets over it after witnessing a bunch of supernatural shenanigans. Before I go on— what’s the lesson supposed to be here? That faith and belief are virtuous because magic is real?

We never get to that level of complexity in the movie. At the risk of making an observation that gives away a plot point— at the end of the day it doesn’t seem like belief actually makes a difference in the outcome anyway. I’ll come back to that.

The biggest moral arc of the movie, and its biggest (of many) problems has to do with the two (yes, two) possessed 13-year old girls. Recall in the original Exorcist, an unnamed demon (named in the supposedly never-existent first sequel) possess a young girl played by Linda Blair. Her youth and childish demeanor are meant to establish her as an entirely innocent vehicle. We’re supposed to wonder why and how evil can target the innocent.

Believer turns the age— and gender of the demon’s victims on their heads as moralistic plot points. Regan, in the original Exorcist, did nothing to bring about her own possession. That was part of the movie’s point. In this one, the two girls go into the woods (of course) and attempt an occult ritual in order to speak with one of the girls’ dead mother. If I followed what happened correctly, things went awry. The girls took a three-day, all-expense paid trip to hell, and three days later (we’re reminded, the same number of days between Jesus’ death and resurrection) they turned up on a farm many miles away. And they’re possessed. And in case we missed the point, the obligatory clueless cop reassures the missing girls’ parents that statistically speaking, when two girls go missing, they are usually just being girls.

That, I think is the main message. These two girls are on the verge of adulthood and are exploring their own desires. That drives them into the arms of the devil, and the only people who can save them are their parents and spiritual advisors (and I’ll come back to that, too). That’s the main message of the movie— parents, protect your daughters from themselves through religion and community-enforced control. The possessed girls spend most of the last third of them movie literally strapped to back-to-back chairs surrounded by family, neighbors and an ecumenical cast of clerics. If you didn’t pick up on the message, here’s a hint: this is a movie targeting the parents, not the 13-year olds. Calling Liam Neeson— there’s a daughter in need of being saved from adulthood.

But wait, there’s more! Another weird lesson the movie is trying halfheartedly to impart has something to do with choice and moral agency. At the beginning of the movie, the main character, the father of one of the girls, has to make a choice between saving his injured wife and her fetus. We don’t see exactly what he does, but after the dilemma is established (for medical, not supernatural reasons), we flash ahead thirteen years and he’s with his daughter. The wife is gone. We learn that another character was on her way to becoming a nun when she gave in to temptation, got pregnant and had an abortion (thus establishing a crude parallel between her experience and that of the girls). The demon uses this to haunt this character.

The final dilemma— and I’m not giving anything away that the trailers doesn’t— is that the demon tells the assembled masses that they have to chose between the two possessed girls. One will live and one will die. So here I am going to give something away— what happens is that the father of the other girl breaks down and chooses her. The main character father never actually makes a choice. So the “chosen” girl dies. The demon apparently got what it wanted and goes away.

What? Right. Yeah. Unless I missed something, the demon was not exorcised. It got what it wanted and went away. And the moral of the story is not to take any responsibility. Whoever wrote this movie is clearly not a fan on the band, Rush— “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

Actually, the whole stanza from the song, “Freewill,” is worth reproducing here:

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose Freewill

To be clear, this is NOT the message of The Exorcist Believer.

So, OK, there’s a lot more that’s wrong with this movie including that it’s not very scary. Rather than go through the whole list, I’m going to close this out with a few observations of some of its oddball details:

Unlike the original Exorcist, this movie seems to be anti-Catholic Church. There’s a “good” priest but also the church hierarchy that turns a blind eye to children being abused by evil (get it? Get it???) And oh yeah, the good priest at one point seems like he’s going to save the day, but the demon kills him. There’s also a generic mega-church pastor who is depicted as a good guy. He doesn’t accomplish much, but he’s there for the fight without a hint of being a charlatan. There’s also a voodoo lady, or maybe she’s into Kabbalah. Not sure, but at one point she’s drawing some sort of magic circle on the floor that looks like what Bowie was drawing on the back on Station to Station (there— a Bowie reference).

On top of all that, in a feint toward actual theology, the former almost-nun decides that they didn’t need a priest to perform an exorcism than that she was capable of performing the rite. This is a very Protestant idea. Also, it’s a commentary on the role of women in the Church. (But it doesn’t work— her attempt at performing the exorcism fails).

On another front, the movie brings back the now 90-year old Ellen Burstyn, reprising her role from 50-years ago as Chris MacNeil. If you just watch the trailer, you might think the movie is about her search for her daughter, Regan, who was famously played by Blair. At most, this is a side-plot, but it hardly gets off the ground. One of the possessed girls injures the old woman fairly early on and she’s sidelined for most of the third act. And— here’s another spoiler— Regan shows up at the end for about three minutes, portrayed once again by the now 64-year old Linda Blair.

Other than following the recent trend of dusting off old actors to reprise roles they first played decades ago, none of this serves any purpose.

Final point — the demon in the original Exorcist had a backstory. Its name was Pazuzu, who I guess was identified as such in the book (I never read it) and for sure was identified in the first sequel, The Exorcist II: The Heretic. The demon’s identity is unimportant to the first movie, except, I think, as a device for the director to have in mind what’s going on. Also, early in the movie we see an unearthed statue of Pazuzu— again, it’s never explained wheat exactly we are seeing— which looks like a kind of bird-man. And then, throughout the rest of the film there are these little reminders of the image in the background. The most notable example is of a similar figure created as some kind of art project by Regan. In a piece of good filmmaking, nothing much is made of this. It’s a very subtle hint.

Believer seems to try to duplicate this technique by making repeated references to pigs. But we’re told by Chris MacNeil that the same demon that possessed Regan is possessing these girls, and Pazuzu had nothing to do with pigs. I’m guessing either that the director of this movie knew about the device but didn’t know why it was avian, or that it’s a hint at a detail that will be revealed in a future sequel.

Will there be another sequel? There’s supposed to be. This is supposed to be the first in a trilogy. Will I see the next in the series? Well, I probably will, if it’s at the drive-in.

But in case you can’t tell from what I’ve written thus far— this is a bad movie.

Tomorrow, I’ll write a (hopefully) shorter review of the second feature, The Expendables 4.

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