The horror genre has always got an unfairly bad rap. Audiences will make up their mind about a movie just by the poster or title alone. If it’s a straightforward scare fest, it will be deemed “stupid” or “predictable.” If it’s an A24 indie horror, it’ll get slapped with the old faithful descriptors of “weird,” or “not scary enough.” Publications will assign proud horror haters to review the latest entry in the genre, giving the film absolutely no chance of a fair assessment. I will defend the horror genre until my dying day, with my last breath probably being used to say “Unfriended was one of the most innovative movies of all time.” But when I watch a film like The Pope’s Exorcist, I have to rethink some of my life choices. I don’t believe in God, because if he were real, he wouldn’t have let this film be made.


The film is based on the life and books of Father Gabriele Amorth (and should have stayed that way), who served as the chief exorcist for the Vatican in the 1980s. If I can credit The Pope’s Exorcist for anything, it would be how derivative it is of other horror movies despite being based on a real person’s life. It’s almost like a game of “name what movie or show they stole that from” which is much more entertaining than the film itself. It borrows from the haunted house stories that dominated the 2010s, its 80s setting and possessed children are plucked right out of Stranger Things, and it weaponizes religion as a means to incite fear and dread in the audience, à la Drag Me to Hell. And, if the name didn’t give it away, it borrows a lot from The Exorcist with a possessed young child who screams things you’d only expect to hear on the New York subway at 3 a.m. But all these titles managed to bring nuance to their respective films while The Pope’s Exorcist is a theatrically released 2023 film that feels like a 2000s straight-to-video B-movie.

Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe sporting a questionable Italian accent) is, you guessed it, the Pope-appointed exorcist for the Vatican. But he’s not a regular exorcist, he’s a cool exorcist! He rides a Vespa and isn’t afraid to pull up a chair and have a chat with the newest demon-possessed child. The film opens with him doing just that somewhere in Italy in the late 1980s, questioning the demon who claims to be Satan himself. Amorth uses the power of God (or Catholicism or whatever) to expel the spirit into a pig instead which immediately gets the bloodiest death in the entire film for some reason. His methods are condemned by the Vatican, which is trying to update itself and keep up with the kids, much to the dismay of the traditionalist Amorth.

Image via Sony

RELATED: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’: Here’s What Made Russell Crowe Believe Father Amorth’s Accounts

Bam! You’re in Spain a month later and you’re following a good ol’ white American family. This is a bad horror movie after all! Julia (The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s Alex Essoe) is a single mom and widow who has just moved her rebellious teenage daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and mute and traumatized son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) to a massive scary castle in the Spanish countryside that her dead husband left them. Obviously! They don’t even have their second foot in the door when shit hits the fan. Something is haunting the inner walls of the house and the demon makes its presence known right away as it possesses Henry. This is where the film goes from bad to offensive.

The sex demon inside a child trope is long-tired and considered too gross for modern audiences. The Exorcist is of a time but also didn’t lean into it for shock’s sake. Here, Henry (possessed by a demon) is groping his mother’s breasts, condemning her for not breastfeeding him. It might have been able to slide if the entire film wasn’t so misogynistic (more on that later). So, in about half an hour, things have become pretty bad for the no-surname-given family and they require the help of a priest. The local and earnest priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) offers his services, but that’s the wrong priest! The demon requires the Kim Kardashian of priests… The Pope’s personal exorcist. Gabriele makes the trip and you can really predict the rest.

The Pope’s Exorcist is a film of (what was presumed to be) a bygone era. Religious-themed horrors with no depth or moral messaging played for shock value and “frightening” imagery, the story comes second to whatever is needed for the trailer to dare people to see it. It’s rated R but mostly for a few shots of bare breasts to keep the teenage boys happy. The Pope’s Exorcist sort of tries to reckon with the Catholic Church’s now disgraced reputation but only in a hollow attempt to make itself relevant in 2023. As said before, the women of the story are reduced to maternal or sexual beings. They scream profanities when possessed by a demon like “The Devil fucked me last night,” and appear naked for absolutely no reason. This is stretched to even Amy, an underage teenager who is sexualized from the second she comes on screen. Again, it wouldn’t be a subpar horror film without it! Amorth, probably in an effort to make him appear charismatic, makes a bizarre animal noise to a gaggle of Nuns like they’re cooing babies.

Image via Sony

The acting is mediocre at best, all probably well aware that they’re too good for this trash material. How they got an Oscar winner to lead the film, I’ll never know. But if you weren’t familiar with Crowe’s previous greats, you wouldn’t immediately clock him as a great actor. The film forces a war backstory to make you connect with the protagonist (very much in the same vein as Poirot’s mustache origin story in Death on the Nile), but no past trauma can make the surface-level character empathetic. Crowe tries to inject some humor into the more somber moments but it’s so out of touch with the context of the scene, you’re laughing for the wrong reasons. An example of this (and of how atrocious the writing is) is when the demon-possessed Henry growls at Amorth “My name is nightmare,” to which Amorth says “My nightmare is France winning the World Cup.” That’s what we’re working with here.

A film opinion that irks me to no end is “if a horror film isn’t scary then it’s immediately bad.” Just because you didn’t jump or scream in the cinema doesn’t automatically render a horror film unworthy or mean that it “didn’t do its job.” But sometimes when a plot isn’t up to scratch, jump scares and terrifying monsters can still offer a good time. If your only wish is to be scared, then The Pope’s Exorcist still isn’t the film for you. Director Julius Avery (whose last film was 2022’s Samaritan starring Sylvester Stallone) takes the “go big or go home approach” and just throws repeated, generic horror imagery like skeletons, scary drawings, and possessed kids at the audience in the hope something will stick (it doesn’t). Between the misogyny and in-your-face ineffective visuals, Michael Bay would probably think this a hell of a time.

The makeup for the possessed people makes them look like they got a botched botox job and its CGI is a worse version of just about every monster of the 2010s. Dark eyes, enlargened mouths – it’s all been done and done better. The film tries to pack in so much subplot and religious context that it leaves no time to build up a scare properly. The only people who would actually be scared by this movie are about five years too young to legally see it.

The Pope’s Exorcist would have fit perfectly within the dire horror slate of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Scary imagery takes precedence over characters and plot, religion is weaponized to raise the stakes, and women are put on the back burner as sexual deviants, sexual teenagers, or sexual mothers. It’s sad to see the bleaker memories of the genre be given a place in an era when it is thriving. It’s only April and 2023 has already given us some immediate horror classics. Do yourself a favor and check out Infinity Pool or Scream VI before subjecting yourself to the pitiful waste of time that is The Pope’s Exorcist.

Rating: F

The Pope’s Exorcist is in theaters starting April 14.

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