Fifty years on from The Exorcist, and the exorcycle won’t give up. Like The Rite, Deliver Us From Evil, The Devil Within, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Prey for the Devil, this purports to be based on an actual case history but spins off into the sort of fiction found in the Conjuring series … if Father Gabriel Amorth, who wrote the books and lived the life described in the title, were still around, he’d be dishing out hail marys for the filmmakers. Just as a minor aspect, the film suggests that the whole history of the Spanish Inquisition was the Devil influencing the Catholic Church to make itself look bad … with a few tiny hints that the same big bad is behind the cover-ups of sexual abuse in modern times. This is giving the church a massive get-out clause so they don’t have to own their own shit – what’s truly horrifying about the worst things the Vatican has done or sanctioned over the centuries is that the people who did them weren’t possessed by the Devil but just covering their own asses or living out power fantasies in natty costumes. The movie Amorth does the Damien Karras bit and invites a demon to possess him – manifesting as black eyeshadow – which real life Fr Amorth never claimed, though Ed and Lorraine Warren have been represented even more wildly in the Conjuring saga.
Still, this is just a silly horror film so we shouldn’t take its history or theology terribly seriously – and the major saving grace is Russell Crowe not taking anything remotely seriously with a Mario Bros accent as Father Amorth, who apparently travels by Lambretta from Rome to Spain and radiates tubby charm, papally-sanctioned mischievousness and the occasional flash of righteous anger. In 1987, widowed Julia (Alex Essoe) has to renovate an abbey she’s inherited in Spain and has problems – her teenage daughter (Laurel Marsden) sulks and pouts and swans about in inappropriate short shorts and her young son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) hasn’t spoken since being in the car crash which killed his father. The workmen up and quit when what seems to be a gas leak makes the cellar foul, and relief that Henry starts speaking is short-lived when he cackles ‘you’re all going to die’ and runs through the Linda Blair gamut of signs of possession (by Asmodeus, King of Hell). The Pope (Franco Nero, an Italian playing the first non-Italian Pope since the middle ages) sends his pal Fr Gabe, who is on the point of losing his gig as a humourless committee of modernisers want to get rid of embarrassments like him, to Spain to investigate, assisted by the local flawed priest (Daniel Zovatto).
Everyone has traumatising flashbacks – Amorth was a partisan in WWII – and the usual tricks are trotted out in the kid’s bedroom … but there’s more fun to be had in the basement area, where tombs of inquisitors, hidden libraries, a well lined with the skulls of heretics and the like are to be found. The script is by Michael Petroni (who could well be delivering offcuts from his script of The Rite) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (of the James Herbert movie The Unholy and the TV series Mini Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) from a screen story by R. Dean McCreary, Chester Hastings and Jeff Katz, based on a couple of My Five Favourite Exorcisms listicle books by Fr Gabe – and it’s just the sort of hash you’d expect from that pedigree, as if everyone in the room had a different film in their head and then Russell Crowe signed up and the whole thing had to be wrapped around him. Directed at full melodrama tilt by Julius Avery of the WWII monster movie Overlord and the Sly Stallone superhero cheapie Samaritan.