Here’s another fudge of a based-on-fact exorcism movie – it’s the kind of film where the capital Ts in the opening titles grow into crucifixes, and earnest debate about faith and theology is trotted out between the knee-jerk scare scenes to cloud the fact that the story just doesn’t make sense. Based on Matt Baglio’s non-fiction book about a seminar for trainee exorcists held by the Vatican to react to the apparent increase in demonic possession since The Exorcist came out in 1973, it hokes things up with the usual lifts from the source of its sub-genre as a two-fisted, brooding young doubter in a surplice teams up with an experienced, eccentric older priest for a battle with a demon who needs to be pressed to give his name (it’s Baal). Seminarian Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) even has Karras-like family guilts, when he’s not at the death-bed of his mortician father (Rutger Hauer) – the Icelandic volcano does some of the Devil’s work here – while shambling old Welsh veteran Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) is a fund of wisdom but needs to step aside so the youngster can earn his demon-busting spurs. Here, Baal bothers a young girl impregnated by an absent father (ultimately killing her and her unborn baby), then latches onto a fragile lad who takes him for a red-eyed mule and has hoofmarks to show it before entering Lucas – which makes him walk barefoot on a roof and slap a child – and challenging Michael to a final tussle.
As is often the case in spiritually-inclined horror films, God, the Devil and the script work in mysterious ways. Michael’s decision to quit seminary is put on hold by an Omen bit with a blown-away umbrella and a woman fatally run over in the street, prompting Michael to administer the last rites: this poor extra is required to lay down her life to keep the hero on his Robert McKee-approved journey. The basic thrust of the plot is that the demon, by shouting and performing conspicuous acts of plainly supernatural malignity, turns Michael from a near-atheist who would be happy to quit the priesthood, pay back his student loan and find an alternate vocation going down on foxy barladies (and who’s to say that’s not a worthy career path?) into a committed soldier of the church who’s going to spend the rest of his life kicking demons around while chanting Latin. This could be a clever plot point, if the film took a Book of Job approach and cast the Devil as God’s harshest servant, pushing the hero to the point where he has to side with the Almighty – with a coda in which we see that the head of the exorcism course (Ciaran Hinds) has commanded Baal all along. As it is, it’s just nonsense – in the early stages, where Lucas keeps saying that the demon will pretend not to be there, we have a more convincing cat and mouse set-up (oh, yes, there are lots of cats in the film for some reason), but the finale, which depends on the hero not being able to find any more qualified priests in Rome, is the usual exorcism movie encounter-group-in-a-dark-room-with-chanting session.
As always in straitened circumstances, Hopkins slices the ham thick and might be having a high old time – he’s not as much fun here as in The Wolfman, but he’s the only thing (except Alice Braga’s pixie smile) that keeps you watching. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom, from a script by Michael Petroni. Producers Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson also made the pernicious The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a far more offensive based-on-a-true-story exorcism horror.