How ‘The Exorcist: Believer’ Aimed to “Reach into the DNA” of the Original Film


The original Exorcist movie really nailed the “possessed” look. Makeup and technology have changed so much since then. What’s something about the VFX that goes into creating the possessed look fans might not know about? 

DGG: One thing the fans do know about is Dick Smith and the amazing and acclaimed makeup work he did on the original film with Linda Blair. So Christopher Nelson, our makeup artist that we used in all the Halloween films—and a consistent, creative collaborator of mine—we got into studying that work and studying the effects of that. We broke it down into stages of how quickly it would evolve from a minor irritation to a nastier, grizzly, and infection type of look.

So we’re trying to just keep it grounded. It’s always practical. Most of the effects in this movie are practically done with maybe some digital enhancements. I see a lot of exorcism movies that lean into the CG approach, and I feel somewhat distanced from it. The animated quality of it can be off-putting in some ways. 

Some exorcism movies I see feel like superhero movies. And I wanted this to not feel like a superhero movie. I want it to feel like it was the people next door, down the street, part of your community that you could relate to. And every effect needed to be something you could touch.

I know in Paranormal Activity there was the famous scene where you pulled the sheets off the bed from the side. Were any similar tactics used in this movie? 

JB: You mean like low-budget tactics? No, no, no. This movie was a little bit bigger budget than Paranormal Activity. So the effects were created in a more traditional manner. 

DGG: You know, it is fun because we call it arts and crafts. There’s a sequence in the climax of the movie that we called the “Opera of Pain,” where there’s the expulsion of all of these demons in the house. And so every corner of the stage had its own little arts and crafts project.

It was an artist figuring out how blood would be coming out of the ceiling, and other artists would figure out how a hand or a face would emerge from the wallpaper. You have the best of the best, the greatest designers, the greatest artists who are working on this in collaboration. You put it together, and it looks spectacular.

Jason, the first Insidious has one of the greatest and most iconic jump scares in all of horror. I’m just wondering, for both of you, what makes the perfect jump scare?

JB: Well, a jump scare’s really a misdirect, right? A jump scare is as much about what happens before. The jump scare is the actual jump scare, but what makes it perfect is when the drama taking place before the actual scare is so riveting that you’re forgetting you’re watching a movie. 

The acting is so good, the dialogue is so good that you’re pulled into this story so deeply. I would argue that’s what happens with the Red Demon scare [in Insidious]. You could have that same scare, and it would not work at all if it weren’t for the performance and what’s happening right before the jump scare.

I actually think that’s the most important part of a jump scare.

DGG: You know, as a filmmaker, you’re always looking to find that balance between surprise and suspense. When do you let the audience know that something is going to happen? When do you startle them and come out of the gate when they’re not expecting anything to happen?

Those are always fun conversations that you have in production. You have them again in the editing room.

Do you have a list of your top two jump scares or moments that scarred you for life?

DGG: Nothing’s jumping out to me. I look at images that have been burned into my brain, and a lot of that is from The Shining, seeing that at a young age and seeing those dramatic images, like the two delightful twins standing in the hallway. Those are the kind of things that I think really stick with me. Those take my breath away.

JB: Yeah, me too. The image, strangely, that sticks with me the most was one of our movies. It was the beginning of Sinister, and it’s the family hanging from a tree. That’s always been the most haunting image I’ve ever seen in our movies or any other movies.

You both obviously have a ton of experience in horror under your belts. Are there any universal “cheat codes” you think need to be in every horror movie? 

JB: There are none. As soon as you apply a formula to a horror movie, which is mostly what Hollywood does, I don’t ever think the movie is as good as when you’re free to invent and do new stuff.

The minute you say something like, “This worked and this worked, and this worked”—it worked before because it was new. It’s not new anymore. So I really encourage the artists that we work with to steer away from that.

DGG: I agree. I don’t think there are tools that are applicable to use like in comedy or drama. One of the things I love about a good horror movie is its narrative setup and payoff. And you can find that in a joke when you set up a joke and you call it back later. I think these are tools that, as a writer, I think can be really valuable.

So it’s well known that in the original Exorcist, a lot of people considered the set cursed because of production delays, injuries, and whatnot. Did you all have any experience like that shooting this film? 

JB: It was smooth sailing. [chuckles

Every movie is different. Every movie is hard. But no, there was no curse on our movie. We started and completed the production without any visits from any supernatural entities.

And I just have to ask for my own knowledge, but do you guys believe in the paranormal yourself?

JB: I don’t really believe in the supernatural, do you?

DGG: I do. Yeah.

Has that belief ever inspired you for any of your movies?

DGG: I don’t know that it inspired me in movies, but it inspires me in life, to understand and accept things that are beyond what I can understand. Sometimes there are no answers, and the ambiguity is part of what plays into my fears and anxieties. 

There are certain things that you can figure out, like you can open the closet door and see who’s behind it. But then there’s other mysteries that will be unsolved until the day we die or beyond, so who knows. 

Just taking a step back, looking at the horror genre in general, there seems to be a resurgence in scary movies and original storytelling. Can you talk about that, and what do you think is bringing horror films back into popularity? 

JB: I think horror, since I’ve been doing this 20-plus years, it’s been pretty consistent. If you make a good horror movie, people show up. If you make a bad horror movie, they don’t—like any other genre. 

But I think that the more threatening the world feels to people, like coming out of the pandemic, the more successful horror is because it’s a workplace. You can see scary things happening that you can control, and in the real world you see scary things happen that you cannot control.

So I do think that there’s a poetic killer interest right now in seeing horror movies. It’s just that the world feels like a more fragile place than it did four or five years ago.