It’s sometimes tough as a horror fan to not occasionally roll my eyes at certain sub-genres under the umbrella due to being burned one too many times by vapid copycats. Strangely, the exorcism sub-genre of horror, while defined by William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, The Exorcist (and a few sequels and spinoffs, the only one worth your time being The Exorcist III (1990)), never was really kickstarted into mass production until the mid-2000s with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a very good courthouse horror from Scott Derrickson. But as the box-office returns grew for films of this nature, every single studio wanted to try their hand at their own exorcism film, and if we’ve learned anything about Hollywood saturation of genres, it’s that they will send their best and brightest to create truly quality, never rushed, never cash-grabbing content, right? Very quickly, there seemed to be a new exorcism-themed horror film in theaters almost every month, with generally diminishing returns with each take. There were some occasional underrated gems like The Possession (2012), Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), and James Wan’s uber-successful first two films in The Conjuring series (2013 – present); we were mostly left with disposable, often offensively lazy fare like The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), The Nun (2018), The Vatican Tapes (2015), Prey for the Devil (2022), The Unborn (2009), Incarnate (2016), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), The Unholy (2021), The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018), and perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back on both exorcism films and found-footage for years after, The Devil Inside (2012). Perhaps the worst part is that I really could go on listing more if I wanted to.
So, in the year of our lord 2023, what does it say about the genre that Oscar-winner Russell Crowe was tasked with leading his own, seemingly generic exorcism feature, The Pope’s Exorcist? But more so, what does it say about me that I actually found it rather charming and enjoyable?
The year is 1987, and Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe), despite misgivings by more traditional Cardinals in The Vatican, serves as the Pope’s (Franco Nero, playing an unnamed Pope, though in real life was Pope John Paul II) personal exorcist, seeing to official possession-related matters of the highest importance for The Vatican. Meanwhile, an American family, led by single mother Julia (Alex Essoe), moves into an old, rural Spanish abbey owned by their late patriarch, recently killed in a violent car accident. With angsty teen Amy (Laurel Marsden) and traumatized, mute son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Ferighoney), Julia struggles to adjust to her new life without her husband, and things only worsen when Henry’s exploration into the basement of the centuries-old abbey reveals a dark force that possesses the body of Henry. When local priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) fails to deal with the problem, he calls upon The Vatican and Father Amorth for help, and Father Amorth finds himself against a demonic force he has never seen before.
Listen, I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you that The Pope’s Exorcist is high cinema by any stretch of the imagination, nor would I say it’s even anywhere near close to the most anyone has done with an exorcism film either, but there’s a truly earnest charm in the film that comes squarely on the shoulders of Crowe’s incredibly campy, endearing take on the real-life Gabriele Amorth, because like every other exorcism film of its ilk, it has to be “inspired by actual events” to be worth its salt, even if said “actual events” always seem to fall apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny. However, Crowe, and director Julius Avery, respectively, seem to be pretty uninterested in exploring any sort of actual look into the mythos surrounding Amorth’s time as an exorcist, and rightly so. Amorth’s claims aren’t particularly believable even for those who want to believe, but what’s the fun in that? Russell Crowe is a priest on a goddamned Vespa scooter riding around Rome. Don’t ruin that for me.
Regardless, despite that annoying little marketing gimmick that all films like this use to goad the lowest common denominators out there, ditching any element of realism is where The Pope’s Exorcist gets fun. When Crowe is given carte blanche to scream at demons in one of the funniest fake Italian accents I’ve ever heard and gets to confront a literal portal to hell to exorcize said demons, is when things get wild, and where I found The Pope’s Exorcist to really branch out from being a standard, paint-by-numbers exorcism film to that summer Sunday matinee film I’ve been wanting to return for a while now — just campy enough to make me giggle like a schoolchild, just competent enough to make my enjoyment of the film not at its own expense, and short enough to never feel like it’s wasting my time.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, despite taking in $74 million on an $18 million budget, and having already announced a (very welcome) sequel, has not chosen to give The Pope’s Exorcist a 4K physical release, which makes me very sad, but luckily, the standard Blu-ray release does the job very well, as is genuinely expected from Sony at this point. The video transfer is clean, sleek, and while not colorful, handles its shadows and black levels quite impressively for a release lacking any HDR or Dolby Vision component to it. It’s also complimented nicely by a strong, very robust DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track that shook my living room effectively and aggressively with impressive subwoofer usage and, despite not being an Atmos track, very creepy atmospherics. Sure, it could be even better with 4K, Dolby Vision, and a Dolby Atmos audio track, but for what’s on offer, it’s about the best it could be given the hardware.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Sony has elected to skimp on any meaningful special features for this Blu-ray release. While they did include some short featurettes, they are nothing to write home about, simply covering the basics of the real-life Father Amorth and the production of the film. Special features are as follows:
- Introducing Father Amorth
- What Possessed You?
From a purely horror standpoint, The Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t really do anything new for the exorcism sub-genre, despite some good direction from Avery, but there is something in the film that many other films of the like forget to include, and that’s character. Sure, Crowe is hamming it up portraying a real-life exorcist accused of being a fraud, but I also found him endearing and found myself rooting for not only him, but also for the characters around him, fleshed out by unnecessarily effective performances from Zovatto and Essoe. It’s that little bit of flourish that makes a film like this worthwhile, and it’s a difficult balancing act of making something that’s both laughably campy at times while also engaging the audience to actually feel something other than the urge to look at their watch the entire time. Sony’s Blu-ray is technically proficient, even if it is lacking in supplemental material. This one is worth a rainy, cozy afternoon watch.
Available on digital May 30th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD June 13th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Sony Pictures The Pope’s Exorcist website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.