REVIEW: The Pope’s Exorcist (dir. Julius Avery)

Certificate: 15 (horror, violence, bloody images, sex references, sexual threat, language).

Running Time: 103 mins.

UK Distributor: Sony

WHO’S IN IT?

Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Franco Nero, Laurel Marsden, Cornell St. John, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Ralph Ineson

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Julius Avery (director), Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos (writers), Doug Belgrad, Michael Patrick Kaczmarek and Jeff Katz (producers), Jed Kurzel (composer), Khalid Mohtaseb (cinematographer), Matt Evans (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A Vatican exorcist (Crowe) attempts to save a family from a demon…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE POPE’S EXORCIST?

Those who previously read my thoughts on last year’s Prey for the Devil and My Best Friend’s Exorcism will already know that it’s very hard to make a fresh exorcism movie nowadays. Nine times out of ten, it’ll just follow the exact same pattern established by The Exorcist, which remains the undisputed golden example of on-screen demon possession movies, and then do nothing else new with it, resulting in a bunch of stuff that’s been done so often – from contorting bodies to priests grappling with their faith – that the whole subgenre has become boring.

“Boring”, however, isn’t a word that one would use to describe The Pope’s Exorcist, the latest major studio attempt at exorcism horror, and by far the most A-list in years with talent both in front of and behind the camera who have, in one way or another, made a serious name for themselves in other things. Is it everything else you’d expect an exorcism movie nowadays to be? Absolutely – but as formulaic and even as daft as it gets, it never gets completely boring, which in and of itself puts it above last year’s much more forgettable offerings.

The film, directed by Julius Avery (previously known for genre films like Nazisploitation horror Overlord and last year’s Stallone superhero flick Samaritan), takes place in the late 1980s, and is based – albeit extremely loosely, if one takes into account the events of this movie – on the real-life exploits of Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe), the Vatican’s chief exorcist who reports directly to the Pope (Franco Nero) regarding cases of demonic possession around the world.

His latest mission takes him to a dilapidated mansion in Spain, where an American family – widowed mother Julia (Alex Essoe), moody teen Amy (Laurel Marsden) and traumatised young boy Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), who hasn’t spoken since witnessing his father’s death – finds themselves plagued by an unknown demon, who has taken over Henry’s body. Amorth, along with local priest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), must dive deep into the demon’s history to learn more about it, what it wants, and how the Church has played a historical role in its former dominance, if they are to have any chance of saving the young boy’s soul, and expelling the demon back to where it came from.

Make no mistake, The Pope’s Exorcist is very much your typical exorcism movie, following all the tropes and conventions that you have seen time and time again in movies trying and mostly failing to achieve what The Exorcist did fifty years ago. You could practically play bingo with all the familiar attributes that are (mostly) played with a straight face, and then get a full row by the time it reaches the climax; everything from demonic voices coming out of young children, to people’s heads being twisted around 180-degrees, to priests grappling with their unbalanced faith, to so many others that either I’m forgetting to mention or you’ve already pictured in your mind whilst reading this.

Avery, who has worked well with playing into familiar genre tropes in the past – Overlord, for instance, was exactly the kind of gory exploitation movie that would have absolutely been shown in grindhouse cinemas during the 1970s – attempts to do the same here, but since he’s working from a much more contemporary script by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos, there’s less room for him to homage the supernatural B-movies that greatly inspired this one, and is instead stuck with executing a film that simply does all these tropes without a hint of irony or self-awareness. Put simply, if you were hoping that The Pope’s Exorcist would somehow buck the trend and actually do something interesting or fresh with the exorcism subgenre, then I have some disappointing news for you: it doesn’t.

That being said, for as pedestrian and familiar as it is, The Pope’s Exorcist is still surprisingly watchable – and a lot of that has to do with Russell Crowe. The Oscar-winning actor, who in recent years seems to have settled nicely into character actor mode while occasionally headlining a studio movie like this, is having a lot of fun in this movie, for he seems to know exactly what kind of movie he’s in and just rolls with it, in a carefree and at times rather humorous manner that somehow works for this character who’s seen so much throughout his life that this simple exorcism doesn’t seem to faze him at first.

That does add a level of charm to this movie, because it’s being fronted by a character who, while certainly not as complex or as dimensional as other similar priest figures in other exorcism movies, is made livelier by this energetic performance that Crowe gives to make all the standard stuff more entertaining to watch. Honestly, it’s a bit like how Daniel Craig enlivened Benoit Blanc in the first Knives Out movie, enough to where that character and the flamboyant performance was one of the main selling points in the recent sequel Glass Onion.

The way that this movie ends, which implies that there are many more stories to tell with this character, you are in some ways excited about, because that means there’ll hopefully be more of Crowe being a surprising amount of fun in the role, enough to where he could legitimately carry a franchise that could rival The Conjuring (although, of course, The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t even close to the same overall quality as even the weakest of those films).

Without Crowe, I could honestly see this just being swept neatly under the rug as soon as it’s made, because at its core it really is no different than any other modern exorcism movie, other than that this one goes for more campier elements than it does actual scares. It’s technically not a very good film, but it is a very watchable one, and largely thanks to Russell Crowe committing himself to some absolutely daft set-pieces, as well as some unintentionally funny CG effects that hint ever so slightly at Avery’s original homage-heavy directorial vision, it’s not boring, which is more than I can say about a lot of the other exorcism movies we’ve been getting lately.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Pope’s Exorcist is a derivative but surprisingly watchable exorcism movie that plays into every familiar trope of the subgenre that you can think of, often without any self-awareness or an attempt to subvert expectations, but Russell Crowe’s lively and hugely entertaining lead performance makes it a campy, if never scary, imperfect B-movie romp.

The Pope’s Exorcist is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find showtimes near you!

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