There are few things better than a well-made horror movie that knows exactly how silly it should be, which is why The Pope’s Exorcist absolutely rules. Yes, the movie where Russell Crowe plays an Italian exorcist who reports directly to the pope himself is a blast. A silly movie that’s Actually Good (versus Ironically Fun) is awfully hard to find, so when Crowe’s character saves the day and then is told that there are 199 other exorcisms for him to perform to save the world, I lit up. We should all pray that each and every possession gets its own film.
At this point, a tease for sequels and a broader universe of world-threatening demons reeks of franchising and big IP. But for The Pope’s Exorcist, it feels more like the light world-building of the John Wick franchise, constantly expanding its borders and letting you know that there’s more out there than our hero encountered this time around. And in the case of Crowe’s Father Gabriele Amorth, the things he’ll encounter just happen to be servants of Satan and denizens of hell sent to fight God and make the world a slightly more evil place.
Father Amorth is the head exorcist of the Catholic Church, and he handles its most complicated cases. The movie goes out of its way to make sure we know that Father Amorth is a rational and careful man, most often recommending psychological care to the supposed possession victims he visits, rather than actually performing an exorcism or dealing with any real demons.
So when Amorth finds himself faced with the most powerful demon he’s ever seen at a run-down former abbey in Spain, it comes as a massive surprise. Amorth’s shock, and the exorcism’s importance, only grows when he stumbles upon a massive satanic conspiracy that’s been hidden for hundreds of years and could threaten the entire world — an objectively awesome plot twist that would make any movie better. Each of the movie’s reveals feels like a natural — and suitably dopey — next stop for the story, or a little bit of color for the world that the movie doesn’t belabor the explanation of.
But the clever world-building only works because director Julius Avery is giddy to indulge in the silliness. The exorcism genre has gotten stale in the last few years — take the last Conjuring film, for example — but The Pope’s Exorcist playfully pulls at plot threads from The Exorcist, the all-timer, and its sequels. This includes a few nice nods to the underrated Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, in the idea that Father Amorth is exceedingly confident in his faith, rather than trope of a man of the cloth questioning God that other series frequently use. Both in front of his peers at the Vatican, who question an exorcism gone wrong, or in front of the literal king of hell, Father Amorth is absolutely convinced that God will see him through, whether it’s through the faith of his conviction or precise knowledge of the right prayer for any demon-fighting situation.
The big surprise is that The Pope’s Exorcist is extremely well made, with constantly creative shots and setups from Avery, who has previously turned B-movie material into something exceptionally fun. (See: 2018’s Overlord.) The scares are exciting and inventive, while Crowe hams up his Italian accent to full-on prosciutto. And by the time the demons really arrive, they look and sound great — the latter thanks to the reliable, gravelly voice of The Green Knight’s Ralph Ineson.
The Pope’s Exorcist doesn’t match the bone-deep terror or filmmaking heights of the original Exorcist, but sets itself apart by building the whole movie on an understanding that its whole premise is a little silly — and it’s never afraid to lean into that fact, like when Amorth reminds a jury of Vatican peers that if they have a problem with him they can take it up with his boss (the pope). It’s well made and takes its scary moments seriously, but approaches every scene as an opportunity to let the audience have fun, either through scares or jokes. It fits perfectly alongside the knowing, in-on-its-own-joke horror of movies like M3GAN and Barbarian, which is a welcome change for the ailing and stuffy exorcism genre. So bring on the demons; Father Amorth has 199 exorcisms left to perform, and I think a sequel for each one is exactly what we deserve.
The Pope’s Exorcist is out now in theaters and destined to become the No. 1 movie on Netflix in a few months.