On paper, The Pope’s Exorcist had all the makings of the start of a horror franchise for Sony Pictures. Like The Conjuring universe, this demonic possession thriller had real-life source material on which to lean on in promotional materials. Father Gabriele Amorth, a very real and controversial Italian priest, claimed to have performed thousands of exorcisms for the Diocese of Rome. With a modest, but decent, budget, Vatican intrigue, and big-name star in Russell Crowe, The Pope’s Exorcist had a lot going for it. But a crowded April for horror and lukewarm reviews may have limited what were still good box office numbers.
Months after the death of her husband in a car accident, Julia moves to an abandoned Spanish abbey with her daughter, Amy, and son, Henry. But soon after their arrival, the mute Henry begins behaving erratically and strange events in the building haunt the family. Fearing the boy may be possessed, the Catholic Church sends Father Gabriele Amorth – the Pope’s personal exorcist – to investigate. What Father Amorth finds, however, may expose a secret The Vatican has kept for centuries.
The Pope’s Exorcist Substitutes Poor CGI and Loud Noises for Actual Scares
Prior to filming The Pope’s Exorcist, director Julius Avery helmed the WWII zombie thriller, Overlord. As such, you’d expect that Avery would have some grasp of the horror genre, particularly blending traditional horror elements with more action-oriented scenes. Yet The Pope’s Exorcist is almost completely devoid of scares and suspense. In place of atmosphere and carefully constructed moments that elicit tension, Avery employs really loud noises. If one scene doesn’t make you jump, then the volume cranks up to another level. And if that doesn’t work, Avery turns to frenetic editing ‘bigger’ moments in place of personal stakes.
In place of atmosphere and carefully constructed moments that elicit tension, Avery employs really loud noises. If one scene doesn’t make you jump, then the volume cranks up to another level.
These bigger moments are achieved through good production values and a decent ‘haunted house’ set design. Despite its modest budget, The Pope’s Exorcist employs some truly shoddy CGI effects in place of smaller, practical effect, further exacerbating the debate about CGI in horror. Why use CGI to create limb-twisting spasms when The Last Exorcism accomplished the same visual effect with a double-jointed actress? Even the sound effects here don’t feel convincing. Arguably, the biggest problem comes from a complete lack of urgency. At point in this thriller do you ever truly believe that the characters are in any real danger. There’s never the threat that someone may not make it to the end.
The Pope’s Exorcist Content to Lean on Russell Crowe and Recycled Plot Points
In addition to a lack of real scares, The Pope’s Exorcist recycles just about every trope you’ve seen in a demonic possession movie. Skip over any jokes you might have about an ‘old priest and a young priest’. If the camera zooms in on a crucifix you can safely assume it will flip upside down. Screenwriters Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Unholy) liberally borrow from better exorcism movies without adding anything new. As for the promotional materials bragging that The Pope’s Exorcist is ‘The Exorcist meets The Da Vinci Code‘ – forget it. A final act reveal about the Spanish Inquisition, demons, and exorcism unfolds entirely through expository dialogue.
Maybe that Italian accent is a bit spotty, but you’ll gladly gloss over it just to have Crowe on screen.
If there’s a saving grace to The Pope’s Exorcist – aside from it being almost blandly inoffensive – it’s Russell Crowe. Maybe that Italian accent is a bit spotty, but you’ll gladly gloss over it just to have Crowe on screen. Not surprisingly, the Oscar winner is effortlessly charming as Father Gabriele Amorth, dominating the proceedings in spite of the chaos around his character. You’d almost oblige a sequel just to see more of Crowe teaming up with Daniel Zovatto’s (Don’t Breathe, It Follows) younger priest. As the beleaguered mother, horror veteran Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes, The Super, Midnighters, Midnight Mass, Death of Me) feels tragically underused.
The Pope’s Exorcist a Watchable, But Lazy, Hollywood Effort at Popcorn Horror
By the time the credits roll on The Pope’s Exorcist, you won’t likely be clamoring for the sequel it so obviously hints at. A relatively short runtime and brisk pacing alongside Russell Crowe’s charming performance make this one watchable. But it’s by no means a good movie, horror or otherwise. Loud noises, poor CGI effects, and a derivative possession storyline might only appeal to non-horror fans looking for a ‘safe’ popcorn diversion. Moreover, the promise of a Da Vinci Code type of intrigue are wildly overstated. Though it’s not terrible, horror fans can probably skip this one.