THE STORY – Father Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist for the Vatican, battles Satan and innocent-possessing demons. A detailed portrait of a priest who performed more than 100,000 exorcisms in his lifetime.
THE CAST – Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Franco Nero, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Laurel Marsden & Cornell John
THE TEAM – Julius Avery (Director), Michael Petroni & Evan Spiliotopoulos (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
Holy moly, here we go again. Ever since the 1973 horror masterpiece “The Exorcist” proved to be a hit of Biblical proportions, Hollywood has been churning out scary movies centered around demonic possession with no sign of slowing down. In fact, less than six months ago, critics rejected the exorcism-themed movie “Prey for the Devil,” but it still managed to scare up nearly $50 million worldwide. Clearly, studios see the value in spiritually frightening audiences, regardless of quality, as evidenced by the newest holy terror claiming sanctuary in theaters – “The Pope’s Exorcist.” And although Russell Crowe brings a welcome element of star power to the film, it remains an unsurprising, unoriginal, and unscary venture.
Father Gabriel Amorth (Crowe) is different from most priests. He drinks, swears, and has an affinity for storming out of important meetings. And most distinctly of all, he’s an acclaimed, albeit controversial, exorcist. When a young mother (Alex Essoe) seeks his help to find out what’s wrong with her very sick son (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), Father Amorth discovers a malevolent entity hellbent on personally destroying him.
Crowe is the film’s undeniable draw and its greatest asset. He brings a playful quality to his unorthodox man of the cloth, excelling in the less horror-tinged scenes. Whether he’s sassily telling off those above him in the Vatican or greeting the family of the possessed child with surprising cheerfulness, Crowe clearly has a good time bringing life and lightness to Father Amorth. Unfortunately, he doesn’t fare as well when asked to face the demonic villains that populate most of the film’s latter half. His energy never quite matches the admittedly underwhelming frights. In particular, he has a habit of reacting to the unearthly horrors his character witnesses with a vacant, open-mouth expression reminiscent of someone reading an unfamiliar restaurant’s menu than one coming face-to-face with the forces of hell. Still, he serves as an entertaining, bright spot in an otherwise dreary misadventure.
Unfortunately, nearly all the film’s elements outside its leading man fall flat. The plot is a reductive distillation of most exorcism movies from the past 50 years. Sometimes, it feels like the writers went down a checklist to ensure their screenplay hit every expected beat. A family looking to make a fresh start in an absurdly ominous-looking residence? Check. A possessed child strapped to the bed? Check. A priest who doesn’t play by the rules? Check. Predictability isn’t necessarily bad, but the film acts as if each expected moment is revelatory rather than standard. Henry, the corrupted child in question, was clearly directed in the most unoriginal way possible for this archetypal character. DeSouza-Feighoney gives a committed performance, but he’s restricted by the repetitive movements and emotional levels to which he was directed.
The one aspect of the story that might make its audience sit up and take notice is the explanation for why exactly this specific location is so full of demonic energy. The film’s finale takes place in the center of this evil spot, and some of the unholy imagery is creatively designed. However, they’re rendered with some truly awful CGI, which keeps these hellish creatures from being truly scary and instead feel merely perfunctory.
Viewers who attend service with “The Pope’s Exorcist” may hope that, half a century after “The Exorcist,” this new film must make new discoveries and attempts some original ideas for the exorcism subgenre of horror. But unfortunately, all they’ll find is a film as stale as expired communion wafers.