Review: The Pope’s Exorcist

Director:  Julius Avery

Stars:  Russell Crowe, Franco Nero, Alex Essoe

Jovially held for a release that coincides with Easter weekend, Julius Avery’s The Pope’s Exorcist is an agreeably silly slice of popcorn horror for the spring season; that period in the rolling movie release calendar post-Oscars when studios let slip their looser, dippier or less worthy prospects. Avery has already helmed – among other projects – the 2018 WW2 action horror crossover Overlord and so he knows the genre he’s playing in. He must also know, therefore, than the possession movie is one of the hoariest old subgenres within the horror pantheon, one which has seen few advancements since William Friedkin dominated it with 1973’s The Exorcist.

If innovation is so hard to achieve here (though Mickey Reece managed it recently), Avery doesn’t even try. Instead he chooses to embrace the tropes, wheeling out familiar clichés wherever possible. He’s the enthusiastic funhouse master gleefully pulling at levers. All that’s asked of us is to shriek and howl at the appropriate moments.

About as scary as the live-action Scooby Doo movie from 2002, The Pope’s Exorcist finds Russell Crowe scooting around the Mediterranean circa 1987 as Father Gabriele Amorth; chief exorcist to, yes, the pope himself (Franco Nero!). Amorth’s talents are called upon in Spain when an American family saddled with an inherited abbey to renovate find themselves plagued by a terrible demon. The hellion beastie has taken up residence in a young boy named Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney). Voiced spicily by Finchy from The Office Ralph Ineson, the demon lures Amorth there for its own nefarious purposes. Teaming up with inexperienced young priest Father Esquibel (Daniel Zavatto), Amorth vows to get to rid the foul menace and get to the bottom of it’s dastardly plot (which mainly seems to involve lazing around in bed, banging on the walls and offering to fuck Crowe).

The masterstroke here is getting everyone to play all of this with deathly seriousness while Crowe stomps around like a recurring character from The Fast Show, swigging whisky, catcalling nuns and bombing about on his little Vesper. Amorth is an incredibly goofy construction and Crowe appears to be readily enjoying the opportunity to slap some ham about (choice line of dialogue, “Bring me that beautiful pig”). The earnest bewilderment of the supporting cast only enhances how much fun his presence is.

Ultimately, The Pope’s Exorcist is to The Exorcist what National Treasure is to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indebted, yes. Out to best it? Get outta here. It is reverent only so much in it’s awareness of the landmark film it can’t possibly hope to beat. So instead it goes for popcorn thrills. There’s some silly make-up and a few nifty pyrotechnics – especially come the end when Avery assails his audience with fiery pits and blood-drenched naked women from hell – but in the main this is enjoyably goofball hokum with a glint in it’s eye.

The final sequence gleefully invites the idea of a franchise – Conjuring-esque – in which its heroes tour the world punching evil entities in the face like papal Charlie’s Angels. I could think of worse things to merrily waste my time on.

6 of 10

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