The Pope’s Exorcist – movie review

It’s been fifty years since the horror classic The Exorcist hit screens and scared the bejesus out of audiences. Since then there have been many other films that have delved into the demonic possession genre. The Pope’s Exorcist is the latest in a long line of such films and it ticks off all the usual cliches – flickering lights, eerie noises, a possessed kid, crucifixes turned upside down, bodies thrown across the room, religious incantations, bleeding eyeballs, etc – many of which were neatly parodied in the 1990 comedy Repossessed, which starred a deadpan Leslie Nielsen and Linda Blair, the original star of The Exorcist.

The Pope’s Exorcist is based on a couple of books written by Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s official demon buster, detailing his experiences over three decades in which he reputedly performed over 70,000 exorcisms. But the team of five writers including Michael Petroni (The Book Thief), Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and R Dean McCreary have obviously taken enormous liberties with the source material here as it unlikely that Amorth’s dealing with possessed children were not as dramatic and sensationalist as depicted here.

The film is set in a small village in the south of Spain in 1987. The recently widowed Julia (Alex Essoe, from The Haunting of Bly Manor) moves into an old house in Italy which she has inherited with the intention of renovating the place and then selling it. She has brought along her two children, the sulking and moody teenage daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and young son Henry (newcomer Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, in his film debut), who are not impressed with the place. But the old house is actually a former abbey, and it also comes with a dark history which is buried in the bowels in a secret, hidden room.

Henry is soon possessed by an evil demon, and local priests Father Russell and Father Esquibel (Costa Rican actor Daniel Zovatto, from Don’t Breathe) seek help from the Vatican to drive out the spirit. The Pope (veteran Italian star Franco Nero) sends Father Amorth to oversee the exorcism. Amorth arrives in the middle of a fierce storm riding his little Vespa. In the basement he discovers the corpse of a priest who was apparently possessed by the devil way back in 1475 at the start of the Inquisition. Amorth does battle with the demon named Asmodeus, who it seems was largely responsible for driving the brutal actions of the notorious Inquisition. It seems that Asmodeus has deliberately lured Amorth to this location in an attempt to possess him and destroy the Church from within.

And meanwhile the Pope has to deal with a conspiracy within the Vatican itself that brings in a hint of The Da Vinci Code. Within the Vatican itself there are many who question Father Amorth about his position and consider him a charlatan.

Australian-born director Julius Avery previously gave us the superior Overlord, a dark mix of World War II action and horror set against the backdrop of the D-Day invasion where a small unit of paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines and uncovered some grotesque Nazi experiments. Here he effectively ramps up the usual cliches, injecting a couple of jump scares into proceedings. Cinematographer Khalid Mohtaseb (The Wolf Hour) has shot much of the film in a dark palette, which enriches the sinister undertones. Production designer Alan Gilmore (World War Z) and his team have done a great job with the interior of the house. The special effects are also quite well done. Jed Kurzel’s score is suitably ominous and enhances the mood of the piece.

Crowe is not the first A-lister or Oscar winner to appear in horror fare such as this, but his solid presence lends the silly material the touch of gravitas it needs. He’s good as Father Amoth, and he is not above chewing the scenery when required and it looks like he is having fun with the role, investing the character with a mischievous sense of humour. Nero looks suitably frail and sickly as the ailing Pope. An unseen Ralph Ineson provides the voice for the malevolent demon Asmodeus.

Ultimately there is something a little derivative about The Pope’s Exorcist giving audiences a sense that they’ve seen it all before.

Greg King

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