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“The Exorcism” isn’t bad, but you’ll wish it was better; made up of stellar parts, it never feels like a fully realized, cohesive whole.

Exorcism

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Making a film like The Exorcism is a tricky proposition on several fronts. The title immediately conjures up one very specific type of film, but that’s not what this film is—at least not entirely.

In fact, it feels very much like two distinctly different films in one. Both boast elements worthy of praise, but that tonal disconnect makes it a strange viewing experience.

The Exorcism eventually leans hard into traditional horror aspects, but the first half of the film is more of a dramatic character study about grief, regret, and the kind of horror that originates in the human mind.

Russell Crowe is excellent in these slow-burning scenes, proving why he was once considered Hollywood royalty, capable of effortlessly carrying blockbusters and prestige films.

Unfortunately, those deeply invested in this study of a fallen man desperate to claw his way out of a very deep and dark pit may be disappointed when The Exorcism turns into a fairly by-the-numbers exorcism film. Conversely, those who will eat up every minute of the admittedly fun demonic showdown in the film’s explosive finale may have grown listless by the time the fireworks roll around.

The film’s beginning does a great job whetting the appetite of horror fans who came for the supernatural shenanigans.

Immediately subverting expectations with a whisper heard over a black screen, a man (Adrian Pasdar) confesses, “I’ve lost my faith” before getting out of a car and making the familiar trek up the steps to a home where we presume some lost soul awaits salvation.

But the man isn’t a priest. He’s an actor playing a priest, and this is just a line rehearsal and a walkthrough on a film set. Still, it may just be a movie, but something very real and very terrible happens to the actor, who loses his life violently at the apparent hands of some unseen evil entity.

After the chilling cold open, we cut to Russell Crowe rehearsing the same scene in his living room. Crowe plays Anthony Miller, a former A-lister who fell from grace after a nasty battle with drug and alcohol addiction following his wife’s cancer diagnosis and eventual passing.

Anthony (Tony) has an estranged relationship with his teen daughter Lee (played with captivating charisma by Ryan Simpkins (Revolutionary Road, Fear Street Trilogy). A powerful scene with Tony in the confessional booth tells us all we need to do about why Lee prefers to keep her emotional distance from her dad.

But maybe, just maybe, things are finally starting to turn around. Tony has been handed a banger of a script, even if he did get it on the back of another man’s tragedy, and he’s determined to make the most of this opportunity to get back on his feet.

The movie within a movie is called The Georgetown Project (the original title for The Exorcism), and that’s no coincidence. It’s meant to invoke the mother of all exorcism movies, The Exorcist (read why here). The characters acknowledge that The Georgetown Project is a remake of a famous film. Though it’s never explicitly stated which film, there’s no denying what alter is being worshipped here.

The Exorcism takes an intriguingly meta-approach to this cursed remake of a cursed film.

A pervasive and persistent mythology surrounds The Exorcist’s “cursed” production due to several behind-the-scenes disasters, including unexplained deaths and accidents.

While plenty will still argue that the crew behind The Exorcist faced the consequences of meddling with dark forces, most people acknowledge that it was likely director William Friedkin who caused much of the on-set chaos.

Though a brilliant visionary, he was known for his demanding and unconventional techniques, including scare tactics, making extreme demands of his actors, and requiring harsh filming conditions.

Appropriately, the director of The Georgetown Project, Peter (Adam Goldberg), is an absolute menace—a deeply unempathetic tyrant who doesn’t care about anything or anyone other than getting the perfect shot by any means necessary.

He hires Tony because he believes his past trauma, including his unholy time spent as an altar boy in the Catholic Church, will inform his performance. Peter hopes Tony’s inner demons will create a more incendiary production, and he has zero qualms about using abusive tactics to bring those demons out into the light.

Unfortunately, it’s not working. Tony seems unable to channel the pathos Peter is looking for. What’s worse, the stress of the shoot and the pressure to not blow his (likely last) big break appear to have gotten the better of him, forcing him back to the bottle.

But is it his painful relapse causing a sharp and concerning change in his behavior, or are more sinister forces at play?

I’d like to say that the question is explored with subtlety and mystery, but it’s glaringly apparent where the story is heading.

Of course, that’s not exactly a bad thing. The typical viewer showing up for a film called The Exorcism (damn, I wish a little more effort had been put into that title) is showing up for…well, you know.

It’s just that everything that happens in the film’s climax is entertaining but not exactly original or elevated in any way. There’s nothing that helps it rise above every other “trying so hard to be The Exorcist” film in the subgenre.

That’s a shame because the filmmakers and the actors are doing really interesting work that warrants something more than the typical “the power of Christ compels you” song and dance we’ve seen too many times before.

The film’s pedigree alone makes it hard to resist. The director is Joshua John Miller. He’s proven his chops in the genre before, first as an actor in the brilliant Near Dark but most notably and recently as a writer, having co-written The Final Girls (2015) with M.A. Fortin, who again teams up with Miller for The Exorcism. Miller is also the son of playwright-turned-actor Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in The Exorcist.

As if that weren’t intriguing enough, the producer of this somewhat meta “film within a film” is Scream creator Kevin Williamson. With Crowe bringing his own share of well-publicized real-life struggles to the set, this feels like a perfect confluence of personal perspective and passion for the material.

Though it never quite lives up to that promise, there’s much to appreciate about The Exorcism.

The cast is strong, though some actors, like Chloe Bailey, who plays the Regan character, and Sam Worthington, who plays the younger priest, get short-changed when it comes to screen time and character development. Goldberg is also excellent and deliciously nasty but absent for most of the film.

What really matters here is the father-daughter dynamic between Crowe and Simpkins, and they rise to the occasion with tremendous aplomb.

David Hyde Pierce is stellar, playing an actual priest and psychologist hired to consult on the set. He brings warmth, humor, and sincerity to his performance, drawing viewers in and making his small but pivotal role memorable.

As a horror fan who considers The Exorcist peak genre filmmaking, seeing so many overt and subtle references to Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece is a real treat.

Ironically, the film’s own troubled production no doubt contributes to some of its flaws. Languishing in a bit of post-production hell for several years due to COVID, principal photography took place in 2019 but didn’t pick back up until 2023. Coincidentally, Crowe ended up filming another exorcism movie during that time, The Pope’s Exorcist, beating The Exorcism to the punch and raising eyebrows when the actor showed up in a similar role a year later.

Though you must appreciate the film’s lean runtime, it could have benefited from more meat on its bones. The ending feels rushed, and a potentially compelling relationship needs more development.

That’s not to say it’s not fun; it is. There’s just a far better movie lurking just below the surface, and it would have been a thrill to see it realize its full potential.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3

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