2 out of 5 stars

Were we to make a snap judgment about the fears of modern film audiences based on the past decade of horror movies then we might come away with the assumption that we’re a devoutly religious generation, terrified of the power of the devil and his demons. The 2010s were dominated by The Conjuring (2013) and its spin-off universe, where all manner of (mostly) Satanic spookies had to be fended off by the ancient and unwavering power of faith.

The new Satanic Panic hasn’t shown any signs of abating this decade either, but at least now we’re being offered more provocative and salacious material—the sacrilegious stalwart Paul Verhoeven gave us Benedetta (2021), while Arkasha Stevenson’s fiendishly brilliant The First Omen (2024) ranks amongst the finest horrors of the year so far.

The Pope’s Exorcist (2023) managed to find camp fun in the fire and brimstone, boosted by Russell Crowe chewing the scenery as the Vespa-riding priest. Just a year later, the actor is back in clerical black in the confusingly titled The Exorcism.

To make things clear—this film has nothing to do with The Pope’s Exorcist. It is not a spin-off, and it’s not a sequel, spiritual or otherwise. It’s a film that happens to be about priests and exorcisms, and that happens to star Russell Crowe. It is also curious that this film was shot mostly before The Pope’s Exorcist, way back in 2019, before COVID-19 shut down production. It’s released now, presumably, to capitalise on the moderate success of The Pope’s Exorcist.

But the confusion doesn’t end there. The Exorcism follows struggling actor Tony (Crowe), who’s gearing up for a new and hopefully redemptive role in a film—a horror about a teenage girl possessed by a demon, and a priest who’s sent in to exorcise it. Before you can say Pazuzu, The Exorcism is quick to point out that the film-within-the-film is not a remake of The Exorcist (1973). That landmark film is hardly mentioned at all. The production that Tony signs on for just happens to share the plot, characters, themes and surprises of William Friedkin’s masterpiece.

The filmmakers behind The Exorcism must surely be aware of the gargantuan debt that they owe to Friedkin. After all, in yet another strange detail, The Exorcism’s director and co-writer, Joshua John Miller, is the real-life son of Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist.

If you’re hoping this will provide space for potential commentary on the inevitability of legacy, or even better, the lack of originality in modern horror, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Exorcism is as formulaic as the troubled production it depicts.

There are flickers of hope in the film’s opening, despite the clichéd trappings. The film set, housed within a cavernous studio, is an impressive feat. The house built for the film-within-the-film recalls the recreation of Sidney’s house in Scream 3 (2000) and the behind-the-scenes technical glitches shown in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). It’s eerily familiar, the lack of a literal fourth wall on the structure giving it the look of an oversized doll’s house.

Scream (1996) writer Kevin Williamson’s name appearing in the credits as a producer also offers a glimmer of hope. A producer who would seem a perfect match for Miller, whose writing credits include the playful parody The Final Girls (2015). His script for The Exorcism, co-written with partner M.A Fortin, tantalisingly highlights the strange history of supposedly cursed film productions.

The Omen (1976) and Poltergeist (1982) are both namechecked after an actor is mysteriously killed in an on-set accident, and it briefly seems as if The Exorcism might be preparing to have fun with the superstitions that follow these films around. Any potential spark is snuffed out, as the bemusing choice is made time and time again to steer The Exorcism away from potential playfulness and towards dour and thin drama.

It’s a film frustratingly conflicted in its tone, unaware of its weaknesses. Backstage, Tony gazes at a creepy animatronic replica of his own head, with one character commenting that it’s not exactly something you’d want to come home and see. A scare is set up, but the payoff fails to materialise. Instead of diving into the toolbox of prosthetics, special effects and movie magic, The Exorcism gives them all a quick once-over and decides never to play with them again.

It’s an inexplicable missed opportunity, particularly as any whimsy is replaced by slavish unoriginality. Tony’s demons are generic enough that they hardly need to be mentioned, but for the sake of it, they include alcoholism, drug addiction, a dead wife, an estranged daughter, a failing career, and, as if that wasn’t enough, allusions to childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests. The latter is a huge tonal misstep, as The Exorcism is unable to give the subject the weight and insight it deserves.

‘Trauma horror’ is a term often used to criticise modern cinema’s tendency towards blunt metaphors. However, trauma has always been central to horror. It’s as essential as lawlessness is to Westerns. The issue, it seems, lies less with the presence of trauma in these films, and more with their favouring of an increasingly generic form of “trauma-as-metaphor” over storytelling, character development, or scares.

Consider the scene in The Exorcism where a character suggests the production might be “bringing things up” for Tony. Another character replies, “What, like trauma?” This is the level of subtlety on display. The standard flashbacks to trauma are clichéd and unnecessary, especially when characters utter the word “trauma” aloud. It feels like a first draft, and at a meagre 95 minutes, it’s woefully incomplete. Of course, a short horror can be fantastic—Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper built careers on concise films rarely exceeding two hours.

However, The Exorcism spends an excessive amount of time dwelling on Tony’s fractured, one-dimensional relationship with his daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins), which hinders the film’s pacing. When Lee arrives at his apartment after being expelled from school, Tony says, “Don’t call me Tony. My name is Dad.” Crowe brings gravitas and depth to the role, but even he struggles to make the dialogue sound anything other than trite. He’s a terrific actor who has become increasingly appealing with age, and his imposing physical presence provides the film with its most unsettling moments. Yet, it’s not enough.

The film makes bizarre jumps that would necessitate title cards reading “scenes missing” (perhaps the Blu-ray release will include these). Strange occurrences on set are mirrored by Tony’s increasingly unusual behaviour, which includes sleepwalking, speaking in dead languages, and telekinesis. Lee wonders if he’s back on the booze again, although you’d think “speaking in an impossible demonic voice” might lead to a sneaking suspicion of something a little more sinister than a few Heinekens.

The speed with which The Exorcism disposes of its “cursed film” setup is alarming, and no less hurried is the introduction of the boilerplate supernaturalism. We simply aren’t given time to appreciate any plausible deniability, or linger in the unknown—each time we cut back to Tony, he seems to be doing something explicitly possessed. We aren’t permitted the fun of guessing anything, even after the film initially suggests that actual and figurative possessions can be alike. Regardless, the film that progresses is hopelessly literal and offers little room for interpretation or discovery. The only surprising thing about it is how unimaginative it all is.

The film asks and answers its questions within a single breath. It wouldn’t be such an issue if the filmmakers at least seemed to be having fun with the answers, but it all feels so morosely beholden to well-worn tropes. Brief moments of suspense end with predictable jump scares, while other plot threads hit dead ends. Adam Goldberg stands out as the slimy director pushing Tony for a more truthful performance—-he works well as an antagonist, and his death, it would seem, is not-so-subtly foreshadowed. But instead, he simply doesn’t show up in the film again. He isn’t written out, and we aren’t supposed to wonder where he is. He just vanishes from the narrative.

As the possessed teenager in the film-within-a-film and Lee’s blossoming love interest, Chloë Bailey does her best with a character who mostly lingers. She’s there, but the film can’t quite work out why. Like Goldberg’s director, or the studio brimming with possibilities for set pieces, she’s thoroughly squandered. Sam Worthington (Avatar: The Way of Water) pops up as another actor in the production and is a similar dead end, though his tenuous purpose is so telegraphed you can practically hear the frantic beeping in his scenes.

David Hyde Pierce (TV’s Frasier) is the most welcome respite, imbuing his weary priest with a gentle wit and warmth. The inherent richness of his performance is an oasis in a dire third act that arrives seemingly at random.

Here, The Exorcism makes its full descent into outright mimicry. Throughout, the film’s scares are pilfered from better works. The first possession scene features a character bent over backwards in a pose just a few degrees away from The Exorcist’s infamous spider-walk, while just moments before, the demon encourages its host to bang their head repeatedly against a table, identical to Hereditary’s (2018) unsettling classroom sequence.

Even the house set, which I praised earlier, is filmed in overly controlled setups that are dead ringers for Hereditary’s dollhouse. Perhaps, at this rate, it should be outlawed for horror directors to watch Ari Aster films, at least until the pandemic of Hereditary homages subsides. But the finale is unparalleled in the sheer number of visuals and ideas it recycles from other films. It would be insulting if it weren’t so utterly exhausting.

Swearing demons leaping from person to person, crucifixes, and plummeting temperatures all contribute to a dull jumble of an ending. It’s hard to pick out anything specific that happens in the last ten minutes or so, so generic and reliant on VFX is it. By the time the scuffle (if one can call it that) between the demon and our protagonists (if that’s the right term) is over, it’s hard not to think that perhaps The Exorcism should have gone back for a few more years of reshoots.

It’s difficult to imagine even the most devout Christian being rattled by any of the feeble provocations The Exorcism throws out. If demons and devils are still as popular with cinema-goers as the current barrage of possession films suggests, then at least this film serves as a warning for filmmakers contemplating entering the sub-genre: don’t bother unless you have something fresh to offer.

The Exorcism is less of a love letter and more of a cash grab, a reminder that the great works of horror cinema will forever be recycled. Tropes and signals are almost irrelevant; they’re wielded without purpose or meaning, other than to falsely suggest ‘this film is like that other film you like’. Are audiences terrified of Satan, or do we just like to see familiar things? It doesn’t matter. Studios will keep churning out Exorcist sequels, cash-ins, and spiritual reboots, regardless of whether they have anything to say. Such is the nature of the industry, I suppose. It’s what a demonic interloper might call a ‘vulgar display of power’.

USA | 2024 | 95 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

director: Joshua John Miller.
writers: M.A Fortin & Joshua John Miller.
starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Sam Worthington, Chloe Bailey, Adam Goldberg, Adrian Pasdar & David Hyde Pierce.