Russell Crowe gives The Devil what for in the fun and games of ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’, easily the most Catholic movie you’ll see this year

Satan, be gone: Russell Crowe casts out evil in ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’.

THE POPE’S EXORCIST *** (104 minutes) MA
The Devil takes possession of a young boy’ soul. That’s the easy part. Now it has to face off with Russell Crowe as a Pope-appointed priest who specializes in exorcising Satan from the bodies and souls of the possessed.

That’s not so easy. But, boy, is it fun. Lotsa fun.

The Pope’s Exorcist is a by-the-numbers horror show that dutifully delivers all the things your average moviegoer is entitled to expect from any movie that has the word “exorcist” in the title. And it’s very well done.

Crowe plays Italian Father Gabriele Amorth with an accent that sounds left over from his performance in Thor 4. He’s a Vatican-stamped exorcist directed by Papal authority to deal with a new case involving the unauthorized demonic takeover of a teenager.

Set in 1987, the story set up follows widowed mother Julia (Alex Essoe) who has to drag her two kids through a rainy Italy to take ownership of a house they’ve inherited.

Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is a spirited young lad while sister Amy (Laurel Marsden) is your typical, off-the-shelf anti-social introvert, constantly dissing mum while listening to music on her cheap 1980s-style headphones (a nice bit of period detail there).

The house is a crumbling old Holy place replete with poor lighting and plenty of hidden corners. It’s under-going renovation, the plan being to sell the dump so the family can move back home and try to rebuild their lives after the loss of the dad.

Trouble is, an evil Satanic spirit – is there any other kind? – takes a shine to Henry and so does that thing where it takes over his mind and body, forcing him to growl a lot and be tied down to a bed so Father Russell and his apprentice Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) can administer the rites telling the Devil to take a hike.

Added to these rituals is a cool mystery embedded in the bowels of the house, filling the film with the kind of pseudo-mythology that genre fans love as it gives the lark a bit of faux-gravitas.

Director Julius Avery – a rising Australian talent who has distinguished himself with such genre pieces as Son of a Gun, Overlord and Samaritan – presides over the fun and games with slick proficiency and with a strong instinct about when best to dial things up to 11.

Crowe has great fun with the role, injecting gags and dollops of anti-authoritarian sarcasm, yet when it comes to the big sell of Casting Out Evil he draws on his big acting guns. It’s so good seeing a prestige actor bringing such conviction to a B-movie, just as he did with the road-rage jaunt Unhinged.

As for the film being derivative – of course it is! Over-the-top as The Pope’s Exorcist may be, still it serves as a testament to the powerful influence William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist has had on the horror sub-genre it spawned.

The damned thing is now 50 years old and its fingerprints are all over every film that has dealt with the topic, this one included.

Thus we have here such delights as: possessed people strapped to beds; kids growling the words of Satan; physical contortions resulting in the “spider walk”; human levitation (always a favourite); priests being flung across rooms; Satan exploiting the secrets of his tormentors; the cracking of bones; flames shooting up from Hell (well, sorta; it’s a gas issue, but we’ll take it); an apprentice exorcist; loads of religious incantations; and, of course, a whole lotta projectile vomiting.

The film ends with a playful tease that The Pope’s Exorcist might be a franchise starter, given the cheeky closing note about all the evil out there needing to be taught a lesson by having the Word of God repeatedly yelled in its face.

And, important to note, the whole premise is predicated on an unshakeable belief in God, devotion to the Pope and the power of prayer. So, if nothing else, The Pope’s Exorcist will probably be the most Catholic film you’ll see this year.

Oh, and just to be clear: though Father Gabriele Amorth was a real priest who worked as an exorcist – he co-founded the International Association of Exorcists (imagine the end-of-year parties) and his books An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories are huge best sellers – the events depicted herein are purely fiction.

Thank God.