Any exorcism feature to follow The Exorcist is always going to have unfavourable comparisons. Of course, no film has touched on the close ties of religion to the potential horrors below the surface of life and the hauntings which follow. Nobody else can do so because William Friedkin had Max von Sydow screaming at a possessed teen in an eerily tall building filled with horror. The Pope’s Exorcist has Russell Crowe storming around on the back of a moped, wearing a trilby and looking like Orson Welles had just stepped foot off a champagne advertisement set, bushy beard and all. His intensity within his leading role as Father Amorth is stellar, a return to form for a man who prides himself on investing time and scope in the smaller intricacies of his character work, real or fake.
Crowe has as much time for the festering wounds of possession as he does for road rage on the way to work or gladiatorial combat. His discipline in a leading role burns on through The Pope’s Exorcist, a fine little horror which relies on well-lit and stunning, implements scattered around the humble and often well-decorated sets. Buried within the sweating souls Father Amorth visits is a delicate truth, because the man himself claimed it as such. The Pope’s Exorcist toys with that, a dramatization which ponders the case notes of a man who worked through a highly-profiled, somehow little-ridiculed collection of cases. Crowe brings such a strong conviction to this it is hard not to believe the Devil himself jumped into a pig which had its head blown off moments later. Shock value is hard to come by, and The Pope’s Exorcist uses it in plentiful helpings as a substitute for real horror.
Julius Avery is still learning his craft and after the botched nightmare of Samaritan, the only way was up, and like a cheap 80s Yazz record, he rises and rises. Through the ranks of Overlord and onward, and the glitzy sleaze of such a feature shows as he enlists Franco Nero as The Pope. The Pope’s Exorcist gets away with some rural beauties, stormy skies bring more of an atmosphere than anything artificial and there is a certain natural feel to this feature which benefits the core social group, the family moving to an abandoned home for no good reason, remarkably well. Avery has a setlist of themes he works from, and an explosive, overbearing final third is par for the course. Amorth’s infestation of sin and the Devil which takes advantage of it is a great way of showcasing the horrors which infect even the holiest of individuals.
What it amounts to then is an interesting feature which rattles through some horror conventions, some eerie masks which display some modern horror spins rather nicely and naturally, but without the grating, artistic conviction. Sometimes it is fun to be spooked with a record scratch, and if done with enough interest in the surroundings, it can be a fully engrossing experience. The Pope’s Exorcist is not quite there and Avery has more than a handful of scenes which feel as though they are padding the inevitable, particularly early moments with Peter DeSouza-Feighoney and Laurel Marsden, despite their solid turns. They are the glue holding this horror together, and where Crowe leaps through the terrors of Devil infestations, much of it relies on the everyday comings and goings of a broken home, a spirited shock to the system which inevitably brings them closer.