I’ve mentioned this before, but is there anything new for modern exorcism movies to say – presumably in a deep, scratchy, demon voice?
The main issue that I’ve always had with the genre is that William Friedkin’s 1973 classic pretty much was the first and last (or should that be the Alpha and Omega) word on the whole thing and anything that came after had no choice but to be noticably derivative. How derivative, you ask? Well, let’s put it this way, without checking, I’m fairly certain I started my review of 2022’s Prey For The Devil in exactly the same way so I guess being unoriginal is catching…
However, while all the blasphemous imagery of scratched faced children screaming obscenities and random acts of lumbar stretching spider-walking remains the same – there is one way these films can try and break new ground. That of the Exorcists themselves.
Father Gabriel Amorth holds the not unimpressive position of the Vatican’s chief Exorcist, but even he admits that a mere 2% of his workload isn’t demonic at all, but actually is a result of mental illness or a highly suggestive mind. When he’s not “curing” people of their delusions by calling their bluff and shotgunning pigs for shock value, he’s fending off attempts by the more “enlightened” members of the Vatican to retire his title, choosing to take the devil and his works as more of a metaphorical evil than a literal one.
Meanwhile, recent widow Julia is trying to renovate a dilapidated abbey in Spain in order to rustle up some much needed funds for her, her moody teenage daughter Amy and her young son Henry who has been mute even since witnessing his father die. However, the abbey has some rather unholy secrets lurking in its mysterious past that are released by some careless workmen and before you can say “the power of Christ compels you”, young Henry has something far worse hijacking his body than the onset of puberty.
The next thing you know, Father Amorth is whizzing to their location as fast as his moped can carry him and after conversing with the local Priest on the ground, the woefully inexperienced Father Esquibel, soon realises that this possession is undoubtedly the real deal. However, what the usually pragmatic Amorth has not taken into account, is this is not “normal” possession and the being inhabiting Henry and tormenting his family is no common variety, bottom feeder, demon, but is a hellish presence that once managed to affect the history of the Catholic Church itself.
Can Amorth, Esquibel and Julia manage to unravel the identity of the demon before Hell’s insidious plan is put in motion?
Despite the fact that The Pope’s Exorcist has a title that infers it’s actually a story about the Pope suffering such an excessive amount of demonic possession, he has to employ his own, private Exorcist to bail him out, Julius (Overlord) Avery’s glossy spot of Satanic panic only wishes it was so original. Based on the memoirs of the actual Father Gabriel Amorth, the movie tells your standard, basic, possessed child story and proceeds to do almost nothing new with it. The whole “true story” angle, so relentlessly pursued by the first two entries of the Conjuring franchise, obviously begs to be taken with pinches of salt so large, you could grit the highways of an Alaskan town for an entire year and yet the film approaches it with tremendous amounts of gusto despite having a subplot involving Franco Nero’s Pope having a supernatural, near-fatal heart attack that’s directly linked to Armoth battling the forces of darkness.
Aside from the studious box checking the movie puts in place, the family are portrayed by likable enough actors with Starry Eyes’ Alex Esoe adding yet another fright feature to her ever growing filmography as the beleaguered matriarch, but, if I’m being honest, there’s really not that much to them beyond their devilish experience. We get virtually no idea of what sort of kid Henry is before he dons the overfamilar scratched visage of your standard Linda Blair wannabe and the movie even quickly ushers the family offscreen the very second the demon changes its gameplan leaving us to discover their fate after the fact thanks to a measly piece of throwaway dialogue.
However, while the movie may be not much more than a shiny carbon copy with blurry story focus, there is one thing that keeps The Pope’s Exorcist being inconceivably watchable and that’s the wildly over the top performance of Russell Crowe that proves to be its major saving grace.
Assaulting each line of dialogue with a ludicrous Italian accent that sounds suspiciously similar to the Greek one he used in Thor: Love And Thunder, he frankly is the best thing in the movie by a country mile. Buzzing from place to place by perching his teddy bear physique tenuously on a puttering moped while bearing a striking resemblance to a late-stage Orson Wells, Russell is obviously having the time of his fucking life as he stares down demons with a stunning array of dad jokes. When a hellish adversary threatens to expose him to his greatest nightmares in an intimidating growl, Amorth simply announces that his greatest nightmare is France winning the world cup.
In fact, Crowe is having so much fun waving crosses around and trading bellows with Ralph Ineson as the Northern actor’s voice surges out of a younger actor, the movie at time starts to feel like an 80’s action movie as Amorth and Esquibel slowly bond until they’re almost a version of Riggs and Murtaugh empowered by the Catholic faith.
Yes, the demon stuff is old hat – passé even – but the between the slick presentation, Crowe’s ridiculously entertaining mugging and the fact that the flick desperately wants to score some of that sweet, Conjuring, moolah (its closing moments are positively screaming for a franchise), everything that concerns the Pope’s favoured demon whupper is a weird joy to watch.
Yes, some of the later DaVinci Code style plot turns teeter on the edge of bad taste (so… the church wasn’t responsible for the Spanish Inquisition?), but there’s enough cheeky one-liners from Crowe and an exploding sucubi or two that keeps The Pope’s Exorcist from succumbing to the well worn cliches that frequently possess it.