By: Brendan Graham
In 1973, audiences were taken on a journey that showcased a religious battle between good and evil, and the battleground was a 12-year-old girl. That film changed the landscape of horror cinema, of special effects, and crossed many boundaries that made audiences uncomfortable and disturbed for ages. Of course, I am referring to The Exorcist, a film that many horror fans proclaim is the greatest of all time. The demon wasn’t comical nor did it speak in riddles, it was foul-mouthed, vulgar, and incredibly aggressive. Pazuzu spewed out not only sexually explicit insults but also vile green vomit, shaking audiences to their core.
Decades later, James Wan took audiences on a different journey in 2013’s The Conjuring, based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Vile spirits, possession, and some genuinely unsettling imagery rattled audiences once more with a tale of a demonic entity that tormented an innocent family. Imagine taking elements of both of these films, and not only trying to mimic the imagery, but also trying to reproduce the same levels of scares in one 90-minute feature. That’s what THE EXORCISM OF GOD aimed to do, but couldn’t figure out the proper formula.
In THE EXORCISM OF GOD, we are introduced to Father Peter Williams (Will Beinbrink), a priest working in a small village, providing medical assistance and hope amongst the poor and the sick. Tending to a young woman who is possessed by something otherworldly, and going against the blessing of the church, he attempts an exorcism, but fails to cast out the demon. Instead, he becomes possessed himself, and forced to commit an unspeakable act. Eighteen years later, Father Peter is aiding a small village in Mexico to distract him from his guilt. He’s carrying a heavy burden of grief, and a secret that he hasn’t confessed to free his soul of sin. Soon he discovers that the demon has returned, possessing a young woman named Esperanza (María Gabriela de Faría), and infecting the children of the village with a mysterious illness. To save the village, and the life of this young woman, Father Peter may have to sacrifice more than his career and his life - it may cost him his soul.
One of the most striking parts of THE EXORCISM OF GOD is the cinematography, and the film immediately shows the audience that they are paying homage to The Exorcist. (You'll know the shot I’m talking about.) Director Alejandro Hidalgo continues the greatest hits reel with very similar looks for the possessed makeup as well as the vomit. It starts out feeling a little too carbon copy of a classic, but Hidalgo throws his own spin into the story when the young woman from the beginning, named Magali (Irán Castillo), returns to Father Peter to reveal a bigger issue with the battle ahead, thus exposing the sin the Father has been hiding for so long.
This spin on the story was intriguing, and despite some rather flat acting throughout the film, I was still fairly entertained, but not expecting much. Once we get into the main conflict, the film mixes in some elements of The Conjuring universe from both jump scares and creature design - the doll creature really reminds you of Valek from The Nun. The makeup effects are well done, and the performance by María Gabriela de Faría really sells the danger of the possession at hand. I also appreciated that they addressed the title of the movie, which was a big question in my mind before viewing.
The film lacks good character depth, however, everything feels very surface level, which makes the religious allegory lose its power throughout the run time. The film feels forced - from the acting, the pacing, and especially the jump scares (there are a few rather good ones, but mostly they repeat the same trick and are no longer effective). THE EXORCISM OF GOD quickly falls apart in the third act. With an incredibly ridiculous chase sequence with very unconvincing character acting, it feels like an amateur haunted house. It also features some pretty awful CGI effects that are very distracting, and the twist to the exorcism angle at the end is absolutely silly. The biggest sin this movie commits is the clear lack of empathy we’ve developed as an audience towards Father Peter. We don’t sympathize with him as intended, and anything that happens to him loses its edge. It’s also worth noting that the film is overly aggressive in sexual language and content, and there is a scene of sexual assault that may be upsetting.
THE EXORCISM OF GOD pays tribute to some genre greats, but borrows too much from them. It has its own great ideas that don’t execute as intended, coming off goofy rather than frightening. It tries to create characters that are visibly struggling but doesn’t give them enough depth for you to really care. The makeup effects are fantastic, however, and the cinematography was stunning at times. If you’re looking for a good time, THE EXORCISM OF GOD may deliver, but if you’re looking for a good movie, pop in your blu-ray of The Exorcist or The Conjuring instead.
THE EXORCISM OF GOD releases in limited theaters and on VOD platforms on March 11th.