Beyond the Screen #39 – Exorcist Believer’s Horrifying Opening

The Exorcist: Believer represents the first in a planned trilogy built around the pea-soup spewing premise of the 1973 classic, sold on being set within the same ‘universe’ and sharing all of two (2) cast members, though scathing reviews indicate that there’s little else to aid the comparison between that classic and its legacy sequel. Audiences also seem less enamored with David Gordon Green’s tentpole setter-upper than with the recent The Nun 2, reflected in its opening weekend box-office takings and a mediocre (for the tough horror crowd) ‘C’ score from Cinemascore’s opening night audience poll.

And since audiences seem unenthused generally speaking, that makes it all the worse that devotees of the original film, swayed by the return of Ellen Burstyn, seem to hate it. And they’ve suffered more than enough as is. The Exorcist II: The Heretic is famously the “worst sequel ever made”, while The Exorcist III, which made the mistake of not giving the people what they want, has gained a resurgence in appreciation more recently. The same cannot be said for Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, which has seen release, despite the fact that studios were so put off by director Paul Schrader’s vision they went ahead and retooled it into Exorcist: The Beginning (tripling the production’s budget in the process).

And now we come to The Exorcist: Believer’s meagre $27.2 million domestic opening weekend gross, falling shy of predictions which hovered around the mid 30-million-dollar region, and a $45 million global opening. You may wonder why Universal didn’t take advantage of a scarce October-bound Friday the 13th release date, and that would be to avoid direct competition from Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, which is reported to have opened to an unprecedented (for a concert film) $123.5 million. That particular tactic seems to have had a minimal impact and even with only The Exorcist: Believer’s $30 million production budget in mind, we can expect the studio is more than a little disappointed.

The one unequivocal winner on the Exorcist team seems to be Ellen Burstyn, who negotiated a huge payday, but not for the reasons one may assume. Per Burstyn, “My price (was) a scholarship program for talented students at our master’s degree program at Pace University. So I then went back and upped their up and ended up getting what I want. And I’ve got a scholarship program for young actors.” Upping their up reportedly means Burstyn secured in the realm of half a million dollars for (at most) 10 minutes of screen time.

So, how did Universal wind-up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an IP that hasn’t produced an entry capable of striking a chord with audiences in 50 years? Well, more recently horror as a genre has maintained its reputation as one of the few mid-budget corners of the box-office still capable of producing franchises. Combine this with the fact that the original The Exorcist has grossed in the realm of a billion dollars when adjusted for inflation (still the most tickets purchased for any horror film in history).

It’s a fact that’s encouraged investment even as each addendum crawls closer and closer to box office hell. Naturally, with the rights up for grabs and heads swirling with inflated streaming-market returns, the studios went about their dark bidding. Universal (in a deal with streaming service Peacock) outbid its competition and invested a total of 400 million dollars to acquire this property, a totally unjustifiable amount.

In principle, mistaking The Exorcist as the stuff of horror fodder is a provably bad investment (exhibits II through Legion), but going so far as to leverage island-nation-gross-domestic-product-type capital only to pin their hopes on the extremely divisive David Gordon Green begs questioning. Consider his track record with horror up to this point: 2018’s Halloween grossed $255,416,089, while that trilogy’s conclusion netted only $105,391,767, though altogether these still accounted for close to half a billion dollars worldwide, a sum which would have covered an investment on par with the Exorcist rights purchase. Green himself has cast doubt on his return to the franchise: “My intention is just to start making things, and as those plans come together, if I find myself in that director’s chair, I’d be thrilled… But right now, I’m navigating it from a story perspective and looking at my realities of life as I pivot.”

Starting off on the wrong foot right out the gate is unpromising but The Exorcist: Deceiver is up next, and many predict a pivot to satisfy audience demands. One thing seems clear: it’ll take a miracle to compel them to come back for more.