By Josh Reilly B. and George Bate
Just four months in, 2023 has already been an incredibly strong year for horror. The likes of M3gan, Evil Dead: Rise, Scream VI, and more have all released to overwhelmingly positive fan reaction as well as good reviews from some critics.
Another horror film that has released this year is The Pope’s Exorcist, which stars Russell Crowe as Father Gabriele Amort, the lead exorcist for Vatican City. As the leading voice in this field, Amort deals with plenty of possession cases, many of which appear to be a psychiatric issue rather than a matter of the devil inhabiting the body of a human being. Amort has encountered real demons, however, and it’s that experience that he uses in his fight against evil in this film.
Amort is summoned to Spain, where he meets with an American family whose son has been possessed by a demon. Crowe’s character goes into the setting assuming it is another case of someone suffering from mental illness-induced delusions, but he quickly learns that there is more to this case than that. The boy is actually possessed by an agent of the devil and is determined to enact his bigger plan that has been in place for centuries. What unfolds is a story of good versus evil, with Crowe and his companions attempting to stop the demon from making it beyond the house.
The story of The Pope’s Exorcist is far from original, but that doesn’t end up being a negative of the film overall. This movie invokes many of the same themes and visuals as The Exorcist, the classic horror movie that essentially has the same plot as this one. Despite the basic premise being the same for both, The Pope’s Exorcist still has enough unique qualities to make it stand out on its own and make it a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining watch.
The biggest positive of this film is the performance of Russell Crowe as Father Amort. Movies featuring an exorcism are always dark and gloomy, attempting to make the audiences genuinely afraid throughout. That’s certainly the case here, but there’s also an interesting tonal choice when it comes to the writing of the lead hero and Crowe’s performance in the role. Amort is a relatively lighthearted, jolly man, and one that often reverts back to telling a humorous joke even after the most terrifying of events. It sounds odd, and it certainly is, and it’s hard to see how this choice would come off without the presence and abilities of Russell Crowe.
More broadly, The Pope’s Exorcist takes an interesting turn away from the classic possession storyline by focusing more on the investigation at hand. That creative decision ultimately ends up making this film an investigative thriller at times, which helps keep the audience on their seat more as they are not only engaged with the scares, but the overall story as well. The dynamic between Russell Crowe and Daniel Zavatto, who plays the other priest in the film, mirrors that of a buddy cop movie, albeit with a much more serious story at hand. The pairing of these two together helps push this movie towards the mystery genre, and it’s all the better for it. It’s not often that a 90 minute horror film such as this gives as much attention to the story, but The Pope’s Exorcist certainly does that and it ends up being another one of the movie’s big positives.
The story is certainly more involved and dynamic than another recent horror release, Evil Dead Rise. In that movie, a pandemic-like possession occurs amongst the members of a family inside a small apartment building, and from there it is purely a fight for survival. In The Pope’s Exorcist, Amort essentially serves as a lead detective in an ongoing investigation, with new details being fed to the audience consistently throughout (such as the demon’s backstory, the possession of previous exorcists, its role in the Spanish Inquisition, and more). That’s not to say that one approach is better than the other, as Evil Dead Rise focuses in on the visuals and the scares in a method that is likely to receive a more rapturous reception than Russell Crowe’s new film.
Speaking of scares, one area that The Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t quite excel in is the terror of it all. The atmosphere is spooky, but the movie fails to move beyond that feeling into any sort of terrifying way. It’s becoming harder and harder to scare audiences these days, which is understandable given how many horror movies are released and how many different approaches there have been over the years. Still, despite that, The Pope’s Exorcist fails to have a truly memorable moment of horror and terror, which feels like a missed opportunity. It’s also interesting to note that this film doesn’t rely upon jump scares too much, which is a potentially exciting diversion from the classic studio horror movie approach, but it feels like they could be used here, even if just to raise the blood pressure of the viewers and make them feel the tension of the story more.
The Pope’s Exorcist is the latest spooky movie to debut in theaters, and despite a lack of genuine scares throughout, the film is certainly still worth a watch. Russell Crowe gives a memorable performance as Father Amort, a priest who conducts exorcists for the church, and the mystery/thriller approach makes it a more intellectually engaging experience than most horror movies.