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The Exorcism (15)

Director: Joshua John Miller
Screenplay: M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, Sam Worthington

Running time: 95 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

When Gladiator elevated Russell Crowe to film superstar status, nobody could have predicted that some 24 years later Maximus Decimus Meridius would be flinging holy water about and fighting demonic forces in flappy vestments! And yet here we are, In less than a cinematic year, the Russell Crowe/Exorcist sub-genre is a very real thing. Okay so that accounts for just two movies so far, namely The Pope’s Exorcist and this film, but apparently a sequel to the former title has been officially green-lit and has started pre-production. So what about The Exorcism? Regardless of the DAD (Dull-As-Dogshit) title, this is a project that has been literally brewing for years, far before the Vatican-centric malarkey. The truth of the matter is that the principal shooting with Crowe was done way back in 2019 well before he took on the role of Father Amorth. Of course, then we got COVID and lots of other issues, meaning that it was almost forgotten about and nearly dumped to streaming without any fanfare. But The Pope’s Exorcist made a lot of money on a small budget, so The Georgetown Project (the original and better title for this film) was resurrected and wangled a cinematic release, which is also down to the production nightmares caused by the SAG strike. So here it is and it’s directed by Joshua John Miller, who as most horror fans will tell you, is the son of Jason Miller, who played Damien Karras in The Exorcist. But should you be compelled to watch it?


We join the film as the actor Tom (Adrian Pasdar in a two-second role) rehearses his lines as an exorcist priest on the set of a film called The Georgetown Project, which seems to be an almost shot-for-shot remake of you-know-what. But something paranormal seems to occur which leads to his death. (Incidentally, why is his demise shown in the trailer but not given screen time in the film? Odd and messy. There’s a pattern forming…). Despite this, the show must go on. Apparently. This leads to the starring part being offered to washed-up actor Anthony Miller (Crowe). Once a reputable thespian, he dropped into substance abuse and neglected his family when his wife succumbed to cancer. After rehab, his daughter (Ryan Simpkins as Lee) remains distant and rebellious, constantly referring to him as “Tony” rather than “Dad”. Hoping for a career and lifestyle kickstart from the film, he tries to get into character. But as the shoot progresses, he enters a fugue state and becomes menacingly violent. Is his mental state slipping because of the pressure or is something else at work? Looks like heads will spin…


There’s a lot wrong with The Exorcism. Like, a lot. This was a project that was “buried” for five years and took only two months to shoot on minimal sets. Despite that, it has earned a US/UK theatrical release by association with another film, the madcap state of film productions at the moment, and the fact that even sub-par Crowe films still tend to be eminently watchable for one reason or another. In short, it’s messy and unfocused and it’s hard to see the point of it. Is it a straightforward horror? Is it an allegory about the pressures of acting and filming? Is it a character study of addiction? Is it a comparison between mental health issues and the lore of demonic possession? Who knows? It could be all of those things or none of them. What sort of message are you supposed to take from it? Dunno. Fair to say that Miramax (the studio) and those involved in the production have tried to sell some of those supplementary aspects to little effect. Many critics (including Mark Kermode, the “Exorcist” expert who must really look after his blood pressure these days) have torn it to shreds. And yet…


If you’re a genre fan, there’s something strangely entertaining about The Exorcism. The meta quality of it is appealing. From calling its main character “Miller” to using the infamous “cold set” as the location for the climax there are loads of little (and not-so-little) nods to the so-called cursed history of The Exorcist. It’s even explicitly called out as one character name-checks the title of that film (and The Omen), whilst being blessed with sage. Better than this though is the use of the director in the narrative. An absolute scumbag called Peter (played to perfection by Adam Goldberg), he goads and pokes Miller into giving a disturbed performance, sometimes stooping to exploit his history of being abused as a minor whilst he was an altar boy. He even slags the actor off whilst knowingly in the company of his daughter. Worst of all, at a showbiz party he describes the film as being “really a psychological drama wrapped in a skin of a horror movie”. We’ve all heard cowardly filmmakers use that chestnut before and it raises a knowing smile.


But we all know what we’re really here for. A possessed and/or exorcising Crowe. And you get it. Freed from the need to do a silly accent, Crowe’s gravelly tones are perfectly suited to growled threats and emotive monologuing. Sure, it’s not the best of material and Crowe is not at the top of his game at the time of filming, but in screen-filling close-ups, he emotes convincingly in confession-box speeches. He also presents a believable malevolence towards his daughter (“My name is NOT Tony”!) and other characters (see you later Sam Worthington). There’s also a weird kind of rubber-necking glee that comes with seeing the noted character actor perform Exorcistic tropes such as bending over backwards, smacking his head against hard surfaces, getting stabby with a crucifix, and… err... pissing himself in public. Not only that, but he takes centre stage for several very effective visual jump-scares, some of which are definitely trying to emulate THAT one from Exorcist III (Spoiler: They don’t. But they’re still pretty good.)


As so often in stuff like this, Crowe seems weirdly committed to it (remember his cockney Hyde from The Mummy?). Even a virtually unrecognisable David Hyde Pierce as Father Conor throws his weight behind the unlikely conclusion. So does Simpkins who tries to give some badly-needed depth to her shallow character, who just seems to be there as an emotional counterweight to her possessed father. Plot holes abound otherwise, with deaths being ignored and tragedies being shrugged off with a single line. Miller cracks his spine and breaks his face, and yet in the next scene he’s simply laying in bed at home looking only mildly surly. And immediately following that sequence, the director offers the part to another actor like nothing has happened. No signs of cops or ambulances in any scenes, which is weird (especially with what happens at the end) and there’s an anticlimactic signoff with ambiguous undertones that’ll leave you unsure how to feel when you walk out.


In summary, it can probably be categorised as a messy, guilty pleasure to some, although it’s sure to annoy some people with its scattergun and often ludicrous approach to the material. Those in the horror community are probably going to have stronger reactions (positive and negative) to it than casual viewers (who just won’t “get” a lot of it). From this writer’s perspective, it was fun and enjoyable, but with the caveat that it’s still a muddled grab-bag of themes and tropes and is only sometimes “clever” by mistake. Nevertheless, Crowe’s feat is entertaining for all that.

The film is a mish-mash of themes that never really makes its mind up what it’s about, which drags it down somewhat. Nevertheless, it’s strangely enjoyable, mainly due to Crowe’s commitment to the role and some superior jump-scares. Certainly flawed and questionable, but it still has something to offer longtime horror fans.
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