Fifty years after The Exorcist first terrorized moviegoers and forever changed the horror movie landscape, The Exorcist: Believer, a direct sequel to the original premiering Oct. 6, looks to offer a more modern take on the idea of possession.
Director William Friedkin’s demonic classic shattered box office records when it swept into theaters in 1973, earning $441 million worldwide over the years to become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time—a title it held until It crossed the $500 million mark in 2017. Of course, if you adjust for inflation, The Exorcist‘s $1.8 billion gross still wins out.
The Exorcist: Believer is currently expected to debut to at least $30 million domestically in its opening weekend—a total that reflects the staying power of the legacy franchise. For director and co-writer David Gordon Green, who says he grew up wary of watching anything scary, Believer is a chance to put his own spin on one of the most formative films of his youth.
“There was a public library where I grew up that had a VHS collection and you could check out movies and go sit in a cubicle with headphones to watch them,” he says. “So I watched The Exorcist for the first time 15 minutes at a time over a number of days. And it blew my mind.”
As someone who was raised in the Presbyterian Church before attending a Jesuit high school, Green says that The Exorcist seemed perfectly designed to get under his skin.
“I developed a fascination with the movie because it didn’t really work on the horror movie tropes that I was familiar with,” he says. “It wasn’t Jason Voorhees rising from the lake or Michael Myers jumping out of the closet. It was something that felt real and inside.”
Updating a classic
Believer jumps 50 years ahead of the original story and opens a new chapter centered on widowed single father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his 13-year-old daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett).
Hoping to make contact with her late mother—who died from injuries she sustained in a Haitian earthquake while pregnant with her—Angela sneaks into the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) after school one day to perform a ritual intended to summon spirits. Three days later, amid a desperate search for them, the girls reappear with no memory of what happened and no idea how long they’ve been gone. Soon, it becomes all too clear that the pair brought something back with them—and it wasn’t the spirit of Angela’s mom.
The idea of having two girls from two different backgrounds experiencing a synchronized demonic possession came from a desire to expand the Exorcist lore beyond Catholicism, according to Green. He says that he drew inspiration from the Vodou religion and the spiritual practices of hoodoo and rootwork for this film.
“I thought, ‘Two girls, one demonic entity. Where can we go with this?’” he says. “I really wanted to reach outside of the Catholic perspective, because I feel like we can all pretty much recite the Roman Rite at this point from all the movies we’ve seen. I wanted to open up the conversation, which is vast, of other belief systems that have ceremonies and rituals that acknowledge some type of possession.”
Acknowledging that public opinion on the Catholic Church has shifted since the 1970s, Green says that he wanted to incorporate a variety of ideas from what he refers to as his “buffet of beliefs.”
“If you look at the last 50 years, so much has changed—from the horror movie genre to the desensitization of audiences to religious controversies. You have to take all that into account when you’re telling these stories,” he says. “So in terms of my buffet of beliefs, when you look at [different] perspectives on possession, all of a sudden a movie starts writing itself.”
Reviving a horror icon
As Believer progresses and it becomes clear that possession is the only explanation for what’s happening to his daughter, an initially skeptical Victor seeks out the help of the only person alive who’s experienced what he’s going through: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).
Believer marks the first time that Burstyn has returned to the Exorcist franchise since her Oscar-nominated performance as the mother of the possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in the original movie. Recruiting Burstyn to reprise her role allowed Green to give Chris a narrative arc that in some ways mirrors Burstyn’s own story. In the movie, Chris reveals that her relationship with Regan was upended after she wrote a book about Regan’s exorcism.
“I’d read Ellen’s autobiography, which speaks to a large extent about how much the success of The Exorcist affected the rest of her life,” Green says. “And so [I framed Believer] around this relatable sense of thinking that a profound experience took place in 1973. For Ellen, it was the success of a film. In my narrative, it was Chris experiencing the success of a book in the wake of the events in Georgetown and how that affected her relationship with her daughter.”
The future of the franchise
Like Green’s recent reboot of the Halloween franchise, Believer is the first installment in a planned trilogy of new Exorcist films, with a sequel, Exorcist: Deceiver, already set for April 18, 2025. While Green hasn’t officially signed on for the next two movies, he says he’s built a “roadmap” for how the series could play out.
“You always have to consider the success or failure that is upon us in the next month or so. I need to process what this movie means in the world,” he says. “But I’m always a person that improvises and takes advantage of opportunities and impulses. I never follow a straight line. So a roadmap is a good way to look at what we’ve got and then we’ll see what our realities are as they evolve.”