The word “oversaturated” is best described for horror movies about a priest exorcising a demon from a possessed child. Or anything that has to do with demonic possessions. Past duds like Demonic and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It was among the examples that made me lose faith (no pun intended) in the subgenre.
The Pope’s Exorcist is yet another horror movie that covers the same old tropes we have seen countless times before. Except with a couple of notable differences here: One is because it was based on Father Gabriele Amorth, a real-life priest who served as the chief exorcist of the Vatican from 1961 until he died in 2016 at the age of 91. It was said that he performed hundreds of thousands of exorcisms throughout his decades-long career. The other one is Russell Crowe, who finally made his first horror debut, continuing his versatility as an actor in different genres since his breakout role in Romper Stomper back in 1992. I always thought he already made one in The Mummy (no, not the Brendan Fraser-led adventure-horror franchise but sadly the forgettable 2017 reboot no one asked for). But I kept forgetting it was heavily pitched as an action-adventure rather than a horror movie.
Marketed as a horror movie that is “inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican”, The Pope’s Exorcist follows the storytelling pattern of Ed and Lorraine Warren seen in The Conjuring franchise. In other words, this isn’t a biographical style but more of a horror movie that is based/inspired by one or some of the real-life cases.
The movie takes us way back to 1987 when the Pope (Franco Nero) wanted his chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth (Crowe) to travel to Spain to investigate the strange case of a barely-spoken child, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) after being possessed by an unknown demon. His widowed mother, Julia (Alex Essoe) and elder sister Amy (Laurel Marsden) have tried admitting him to a hospital earlier but the doctor couldn’t do much to cure his unexplained condition. Even Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), a young priest who tries to help ended up getting hurled out of the room after the demon that possessed Henry shouted “Wrong f****** priest!” The subsequent arrival of Father Amorth performing an exorcism with the help of Father Esquibel is only the beginning as the ancient abbey, which Julia inherited in the first place lies a centuries-long dark secret that has to do with the Vatican.
Julius Avery is no stranger to directing the horror genre, given his experience in the gory World War II zombie thriller in Overlord. I enjoyed that movie but then, he followed up with the generic Stallone-led superhero action-drama Samaritan, which was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen last year. The good news, he bounces back in The Pope’s Exorcist and the first thing I noticed is how he subverts the usual genre expectation by making Russell Crowe’s Father Amorth more than just your average role of a priest and an exorcist. Crowe brings a lot of personality into his character and made it his own. He’s outspoken and cynical and he sure has a field day playing Father Amorth with enough rugged charisma. We even see him sporting a pair of sunglasses while riding a Lambretta motor scooter (!) and other times, he would either crack jokes before performing an exorcism or having a few sips of whiskey from his canteen. His unconventional take on the man of the cloth may have been divisive but this is what uniquely separates him from the usual ones we have seen in most exorcism-themed horror movies.
Crowe’s irreverent lead performance strikes a right contrast to Daniel Zovatto, whose supporting turn as Father Esquibel is more of a naive and straightforward young priest by comparison. The rest of the cast delivers equally decent turns including the legendary Franco Nero as The Pope.
The story — credited to Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos — both screenwriters who have their respective shares of prior experiences in writing demonic-possession horrors in The Rite (2011) and The Unholy (2021), pretty much stick to the tried-and-true formula. The movie takes place mostly within the confines of the old abbey and we get to see the obligatory exorcism rituals, complete with the standard-issue loud and distorted noises, familiar imagery (e.g. the upside-down crucifix on the wall) and roving cameraworks. I have to admit that horror directors like James Wan would do a better job of amplifying the supernatural tension and Avery is certainly no William Friedkin in the ever-incomparable 1973 genre classic of The Exorcist.
But at least he knows how to play around with the otherwise typical subgenre without taking it too seriously. Frankly, it would fare a lot worse if Avery chose to play it straight and imagine if Russell Crowe gets all glum and serious with his role instead. The mix of horror with a dose of comedy and even The Da Vinci Code-style historical mystery may have been tonally unexpected but Avery somehow manages to make it work. Special effects are a mixed bag while Avery doesn’t forget to amp up some of the horror scenes with unabashedly B-movie energy of blood and gore, particularly during the all-hell-breaks-loose climactic finale.