Russell Crowe’s unintentionally campy performance isn’t enough to save The Pope’s Exorcist from its mediocre frights and copy n’ paste narrative.
Every year we get a couple of throwaway horror movies from big studios. They are fascinating to watch because they are unintentionally trashy and campy, as everybody attached to the projects takes them seriously. The latest one arrives with the question: “Did you know the pope had an official exorcist?” If the answer is no – which is the correct response, because who could have guessed such a thing? – then look no further than Julius Avery’s latest feature, The Pope’s Exorcist. The revelatory title made me chuckle at the preposterous possibilities that this film might contain. And when I saw that Russell Crowe was attached to the project, I booked my ticket immediately. But was it worth the wait? Well… not really.
Even though The Pope’s Exorcist is based on a true story, its narrative is fictionalized – with a heavy dose of exaggeration, so it could fit its horror genre mold – and revolves around one of the exorcisms that Father Gabriele Amorth performed during his stint as the head exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. This catholic priest, who once said, “practicing yoga is Satanic; it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter”, served for over thirty years and claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms throughout his lifetime. He became a leading figure for those who had a calling to serve god, to the point where Amorth founded the International Association of Exorcists back in the 90s.
In the film, we are never given a full perspective on Amorth’s career: all we know is that he’s been sent by the pope himself and is considered to be a bit of a “rebel” amongst his peers. Instead, The Pope’s Exorcist wants to take the run-of-the-mill route to demonstrate the horrors a priest could face while performing an exorcism. This specific venture into the depths of possessive evils and satanic presences has Amorth being sent to Spain by order of The Pope (Franco Nero) to save the soul of a twelve-year-old kid named Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney).
The kid’s family, mother Julia (Alex Essoe) and sister Amy (Laurel Marsden), moved up to an old church in Castile that belonged to her husband’s ancestors. The youngling’s mother is extremely worried about it: she will do whatever it takes to get Henry back and free him of this demon (voiced by Ralph Ineson) that’s possessing him.
The demon seems to be asking for Father Amorth’s presence, but not for the right reasons. It wants to use his body as a vessel to spread sin worldwide. Will Father Amorth be able to save Henry’s soul before it is too late? Does he plunge into the bowels of satanic iniquity in the process? It’s hard to make a movie about possessions and other similar topics without William Friedkin’s masterful The Exorcist coming to mind – a film you should reference lightly. We begin to see flashes of said film scattered throughout The Pope’s Exorcist’s runtime before steering off into a pit of mediocrity with almost lifeless horror set-pieces paving the way into its chuckle-worthy climax.
Surrounded by tropes, Julius Avery tries to grab the audience’s attention by implementing an old-school attire into the film, as if it was a B-horror movie from the late 80s or early 90s. Avery is known for selecting B-movie-like stories and adding some modern flair to them, as seen in his 2018 break-out feature, Overlord. But, since this time around, there’s just little going on; nothing grabs the audience’s attention. As a horror feature, it doesn’t work because every scene feels like a recreation of a film we have seen before. And when you look into its dramatic affairs, it is even worse due to the poor character development, pacing, and dialogue, all leading to us not caring about whatever happens to these people.
The Pope’s Exorcist ends up as a shadow of the films that came before it. If it has something going its way, it would be Russell Crowe’s oblivious performance as Amorth. With a laughable accent attached, Crowe eats the scenery for all he’s worth. And it adds an unplanned comedic twist to this dark tale. His excessiveness in each second he’s on-screen made me want to stick to the end and see what happens, even if the ending is completely obvious, albeit risible. Although there’s some enjoyment from watching Crowe once again fail miserably in delivering a foreign accent and chanting verses to keep evil away, that isn’t enough to save this film from inevitable disaster.
The Pope’s Exorcist isn’t boring per se, but it’s a forgettable horror picture that curated its narrative playbook from films we would like to be seeing instead. A hint of innovation or ambition would have made this lackluster picture worth your time.
The Pope’s Exorcist is now available to watch on digital and on demand.