WA-born Victorian College of the Arts alum Julius Avery is not the first filmmaker to take a stab at replicating the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. And he certainly won’t be the last. That 1973 film looms large over the horror genre with rereleases, a raft of sequels, duelling prequels, an upcoming television sequel series, and a host of copycats in its (and Pazuzu’s) wake.
Even Friedkin couldn’t escape its grip over the years, returning to the subject matter of demonic possessions once again with his 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth. You’d be forgiven for having never seen (or even heard of) it because that shot-on-video embarrassment is truly one of the worst films of its decade, purporting as it did to have captured a real exorcism (it didn’t) with all the shock and awe of a K Mart commercial.
That film, however, is something of an unofficial primer for The Pope’s Exorcist. Father Gabriele Amorth is indeed a very real person who for several decades was the church’s chief exorcist, spending his time travelling around Europe on his kicky little vespa scooter, cleansing Europe of demons both fake and (supposedly) genuine. As he says in probably my favourite line of this new movie: ‘You have a problem with me, you talk to my boss.’
Thankfully, a weirdly committed Russell Crowe does a lot of heavy lifting here while looking eerily identical to Orson Welles in his F for Fake era. It’s a performance with an old-school movie-star quality to it. Once upon a time, we might have seen George C Scott or even late-era Marlon Brando doing something similar, valiantly trying to elevate the familiar nonsense around them to something approaching a good time.
Devil may care
It doesn’t help the comparisons to The Exorcist that Avery and his five (!) credited writers chose the narrative they did. Here, two priests (one older, the other younger) attempt to save the possessed young child of a single mother (Alex Essoe). A child (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) who spouts profanities and lashes its own skin and who speaks in a distorted voice while tied to the bedposts.
Of all the stories in these supposedly very true and not at all made-up books that Father Amorth wrote, it seems awfully convenient that this one follows so closely to that of a famous book and film from ten years earlier. Curious. Nobody mentions this, of course. That would be silly.
Sent by the Pope (the legendary Franco Nero of all people) to investigate, Russell Crowe’s Father Amorth quickly believes the family’s story and sets out to uncover the demon’s name and vanquish it to the depths of hell once more. Working alongside him once more alongside a young local and corruptible priest (Daniel Zovatto), while in Rome the unbelieving Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady) tries to convince his fellow men-of-the-cloth that Amorth is a charlatan.
Unlike Friedkin’s groundbreaking Catholic horror – the highest-grossing horror movie at the box office of all time until 2017’s It – it doesn’t have the grounded sense of reality that made its frights so arresting. The chilly streets and classic townhouses of contemporary America (and all that that entails politically and socially) are instead replaced here by a dilapidated old chapel in 1980s Spain where an American family have relocated—and thankfully everybody speaks English.
The closest it gets to trying anything relevant was already done by The Da Vinci Code decades ago.
But look, there’s not anything particularly wrong with that. If you ignore the many, many times it tries to sell itself as the real deal despite its patent ridiculousness, Avery is more or less successful in what he’s trying to pull off.
Thankfully, he has brought along his buddy Jed Kurzel who provides a modest little ripper of an original score that gives the movie enough spark to ignore that the frights are pretty low to the ground. They pair had previously worked together on 2014’s Son of a Gun and the 2018 zombie-nazi horror flick Overlord. Alan Gilmore’s production design is also a handsomely gothic piece of work. It’s a shame the visual effects take over in its climax, but that’s easy to forgive.
There are truly so many exorcism and demonic possession movies that it is impossible to keep count. Catholic horror remains a genre that shows no signs of slowing down, and as more of the church’s real-world horrors come to light there is a genuine space to be something more.
The Pope’s Exorcist does not take any of those chances. While it broaches some interesting Catholic taboos – particularly in regards to the Zovatto character whose sinful confessions hint at emotional depths the script has no interest in following through with – Avery is more interested in being a fun night out at the movies instead.
The Pope’s Exorcist is a modest success. The sort of thing that does exactly what its title promises. And for fans of Rusty, something different that allows him to work that gruff but cheeky charm.
The Pope’s Exorcist is in cinemas nationwide from 6 April.