Horror has amassed a prolific fandom. According to Statista, horror sits in sixth place as the most profitable genre in 2023. A burgeoning market equates to greater demand. But fans are fickle; they want what they want. In years past, although there has been a veritable selection of films in the horror genre, many don’t meet expectations. The reasons range from poor taste in themes, regurgitated plots, and lousy casting to plain weirdness. However, as much as fans are fickle, they are hopeful. There is always the expectation that something great is right around the corner.
The move to reinvigorate franchises is only sometimes a winner with audiences. Most times, once a story has been told and cold, no one wants to see it reanimated. Audiences only like zombies as film features. However, this year, fans of horror classics will have an opportunity to see the revival of an iconic film, The Exorcist.
Astoundingly, like a few other films, the upcoming feature will reportedly serve as a sequel to the 1973 original. That is an astonishing 50-year gap. On the surface, this seems ludicrous. For sure, no one is clamoring for a follow-up to a film made in the early 70s. But, given the original’s success, it could reinvigorate the franchise if done correctly. However, here is a look at how The Exorcist: Believer could be supremely successful or tank.
Update September 26, 2023: With The Exorcist set to return to theaters for a limited 50th-anniversary engagement and the upcoming release of The Exorcist: Believer, this article has been updated with even more material regarding the potential of the newest film.
The Exorcist: Its Former Success
In the late ’60s to mid-’80s, one thing that viewing audiences loved was being frightened. This was clear by the increasing amount of horror content released during this period. Some of horror’s most iconic characters were born during this span of time. And what the die-hard enthusiast now considers classics were birthed over the course of these decades.
The Exorcist is included in the list of those films which made an indelible mark on the genre. Harper’s Bazaar lists The Exorcist as number 30 in their top 53 Best classic horror movies of all time. This is for a good cause. It is recorded that The Exorcist was so terrifying that it sent many moviegoers running for the exits. In 2013, the film was ranked one of the scariest movies by IMDb. And its award-winning record speaks for itself. As Collider notes,
“[The Exorcist] was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1974; it received Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Sound.”
The Godfather was the most successful film of 1973. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and was the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture. Even to this day, the film is regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made and one of the scariest movies of all time. In 2010, the film was selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry due to its cultural significance. Given this impressive imprint, The Exorcist was incomparable and a horror fan’s dream for the time.
The Exorcist: and What Audiences Crave in Horror Films
Audiences want to be entertained. They want to be moved and terrified beyond rationality. How that has been accomplished has changed. As fans’ tastes have expanded, so has the definition of what is scary. What was nightmarish in the 1960s or even the 80s doesn’t have the same potency for today’s audiences.
That is understandable, being that such was novel and new then. People had yet to see a full-blown account of possession told in that fashion on the big screen. Linda Blair’s (who reportedly served as an advisor for the 2023 sequel) head-spinning scene was so grotesque in its detail that it became one of the most iconic and nightmarish scenes to be crafted. The Washington Post notes,
“The special effects were groundbreaking for their time–green projectile vomit, spinning heads, shaking beds, and gross makeup–and people flocked to see this horrifying movie. People reportedly vomited, fainted, and ran from theaters.”
Can such hold up for modern audiences? That is yet unknown. But one thing remains irrefutable. Despite the passage of time and desires for fresh terrors, films that inspire a deep and abiding visceral reaction never get old. That is what horror fans most crave. But the replication of that is arduous.
The Exorcist: Legacy Characters
Ellen Burstyn will come back as Chris MacNeil, mother of the once-possessed Regan MacNeil, and judging by the trailer for Believer, she plays a significant role in the new story. Burstyn’s return will surely attract horror fans who enjoy seeing legacy characters return to help revive a franchise (simply look at how successful the new Scream films have been). It also doesn’t hurt that she’ll be joined by Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr. and Hereditary‘s Ann Dowd.
Yet this might not translate to box office numbers. Ellen Burstyn is a great actress, no question there. Yet she is not the signature face of The Exorcist; Linda Blair is. Currently, it is unknown if Blair will return for the film. On top of that, neither character has the association with the franchise that Jamie Lee Curtis did with Halloween or Neve Campbell with Scream. Bringing back a legacy character for The Exorcist: Believer does not have the same draw for audiences that those other films had. Instead, what will draw viewers in is the scares, as that is The Exorcist’s biggest legacy. Can the new one live up to the hype the original had in terms of terrifying audiences?
The Exorcist Advantage: The Big Halloween Event
While genres like comedy have faded at the box office, horror is still going strong. The fanbase is loyal and tends to turn out to see the movies in the genre. It is one of the few genres that seem to be able to compete with superhero films, even if they don’t draw in as big of a number. 2023 has seen hits like M3GAN, Evil Dead Rise, Scream 6, Insidious: The Red Door, and The Nun 2 all do well at the box office.
The Exorcist: Believer is opening the first week of October, making it the biggest horror movie for the month of Halloween. This release pattern worked well for Halloween in 2018. Notably, the film was originally set to capitalize on October, having a Friday the 13th by opening on the holiday. Yet due to fear of competition from The Taylor Swift: Eras Tour concert movie, the film was moved back one week to October 6, 2023. Now, it has the whole month of October to play and be people’s go-to movie for the Halloween season.
The Director: He Both Won and Lost Fans on Another Franchise
David Gordon Green is the creative force behind The Exorcist: Believer, serving as a writer and the director for the franchise’s revival sequel. Green is set to direct all three films in a new trilogy. The Exorcist: Deceiver is slated for release on April 18, 2025, while the third and final film title and release date has yet to be confirmed.
Green is, of course, no stranger to reviving a beloved horror franchise, having served as the writer and director of Halloween (2018), Halloween Kills, and Halloween Ends. While the first installment in that trilogy was well-received by fans and critics alike, the following two films had polarizing results, meeting with more backlash than praise.
Green recently explained to Empire that he approached The Exorcist sequels much differently than Halloween, which might offer horror fans some hope.
“The Halloween movies are in the slasher genre. They’re a place to play, and maybe have some campy fun. But this one was more researched and a bit academic. The narrative we were sculpting, and the relationships, were more dramatic. It’s a very different approach.”
Given his track record with horror, this could go either way. He might feel he has something to prove now, but on the other hand, he might have alienated too many horror fans to bring audiences to Believer. While Halloween (2018) had a lot of goodwill going into it, that is not something Believer has right now.
Primary Counterpoint to Success
Given the factors of the original’s success and the niche’s success, it seems almost a slam dunk. But there is an even greater counterpoint that might tank all efforts. The greatest countermeasure is age. The film is old. Trying to revive movies with a significant time gap has rarely fared well with audiences. And this film will cater to an entirely new generation, many of whom have zero investment in The Exorcist franchise.
This is a gargantuan hurdle for the film to avoid so that it does not fizzle before it hits the screen. The recent box office disappointment of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny shows that younger audiences are not as interested in older franchises as they used to be. Unlike Halloween, which was both an iconic film and a long-running franchise with various entries people know, most contemporary audiences likely don’t remember The Exorcist sequels and instead just know it was one landmark film from 50 years ago.
The 1973 Exorcist was a staple, exemplifying how horror should be done. The proof of its durability remains. However, durability and former success do not negate that a sequel is a lofty move and could be destructive. Most people like their classics left intact. But it will be exciting to see what Green can pull off and if he can create a feature that boosts the franchise, genre, and niche.
This will assuredly be a win for Green as he aimed to walk away from horror before taking on this project. There is much on the line, and one of the most salient is whether this move will help The Exorcist maintain its place as one of the best horror films ever crafted.