The thing about exorcism movies, like the new drooling nonsense The Pope’s Exorcist, is that they’re so, well, Catholic. As Pauline Kael noticed back in 1973 — while even the Vatican didn’t seem to — exorcism horror films, no matter how profane, are hard-sell billboards for the veracity of Christian faith, and particularly the archaic tenets of Roman Catholicism. Simply, if you can get possessed by a demon, then it follows that you have reasonable proof that God and Jesus and Heaven exist; it’s a genre narrative built for the faithful, who want nothing more than to be reassured that prayers can literally vanquish evil. If only. The Holy See “condemned” The Exorcist back then — dildoing that crucifix surely put them over the edge — but that box-office smash made the case for old-school devoutness better than a hundred papal encyclicals.
If that’s your kink. If you’re a recovering extra-ex-Catholic like me, or just a rational filmgoer, these scenarios require a big buy-in. No matter how bloody or screaming-meemies, it’s like the subgenre is always angling to get you on your knees. That is, if you take them at all seriously, which you cannot do with director Julius Avery’s liturgical splooge, a film that ostensibly tells the story of Reverend Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s very real bull goose evil-battler, who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of demon-expelling rituals since the ’80s, and who loved writing books about it. The movie is pure bloviating hokum, of course, with Russell Crowe sporting a nice grumbly Italian accent as Amorth, who, after an intro ritual that climaxes with shotgunning a possessed pig, is sent to Spain (he seems to travel the whole way on his Vespa) to investigate yet another gravely-voiced, pupil-morphed, profanity-spewing tween.
Avery is a crude action-movie lout, and The Pope’s Exorcist is clotted with shrieking cliches lifted from other exorcism movies — growling kids, crawling jaunts on the ceiling, people thrown across rooms, statues bleeding, yadda yadda. Amorth’s task here is to suss out the weird-but-kinda-teenage behavior of an American kid (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), who, with his widowed mom (Alex Essoe) and his very snotty sister (Laurel Marsden), live in an ancient abbey they inherited from the recently dead dad. Assisted by a young local priest (Daniel Zovatto), Amorth goes about confirming the possession, and then praying, and then investigating further, because of course there’s some kind of Dan Brown-ish historical conspiracy at work, trailing back to the Inquisition.
Exorcisms are, apparently, lots of praying and struggling to “not be distracted” by demonic high-jinks, but naturally, movies like this are all about distraction, with flying gore and CGI, so we don’t have a chance to ponder the fatal thinness of the material. Why prayer sometimes beats the evil spirit back and sometimes doesn’t is an unaddressed question, just as the metaphysical calculus of possession never makes a whole lot of even cheesy genre-movie sense. It doesn’t help that DeSouza-Feighoney is nearly as lame an actor as whoever provides his hoarse, over-enthusiastic demon’s voice; by comparison, Crowe’s natural gravity comes off seeming almost — almost — substantial. But it’s not an actor’s movie, nor a cinematographer’s (the film favors murk, and subcellars are often bathed in unattributed sunlight). It’s a junky pulp director’s movie, disposable and thoughtless and chucklesome. The scariest moment comes in the coda, with a painfully obvious bid for a sequel and a franchise. God forbid. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.