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'The Exorcism' review: Crowe stars in meta horror flick that's only so possessing

Mark Meszoros, The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio) on

Published in Entertainment News

First, there’s the inspiration behind the new movie “The Exorcism” — the idea that the filming of the acclaimed 1973 film was cursed, which is a thing of rich cinema lore.

Then there’s the appealing horror movie-within-a-horror movie structure, the flick built around an exorcism movie with, yes, a possessed girl and a haunted priest.

And, finally, there’s the fact that its director and co-writer, Joshua John Miller, is the son of Jason Miller, who portrayed the ill-fated Father Karras in “The Exorcist,” and who told a story about a priest stopping him on the street while the movie was being made and saying, “When we dare to unmask the devil, the devil retaliates.”

All of it is much more interesting than “The Exorcism” itself, which, like so many horror endeavors that have come before it devolves from a promising start to too silly to be scared by or even taken vaguely seriously.

Co-penned by Miller’s life partner, M.A. Fortin, the two having previously collaborated on the screenplay for the reasonably well-received 2015 comedy slasher “The Final Girls,” “The Exorcism” does hold your interest for a while.

It opens with a fairly well-executed sequence in which the actor who will play the priest in the fictitious movie works on his movements through a three-tiered house set constructed on a soundstage while reading his lines. That is until he’s killed, quickly but gruesomely.

Next, “The Exorcism” benefits from the presence of its star, Russell Crowe. Once the star of blockbusters and acclaimed films, such as 1999’s “The Insider” and 2000's “Gladiator,” the New Zealand-born, Australian-raised actor more recently has been front and center of less memorable fare such as “Unhinged” and, well, “The Pope’s Exorcist.” And yet he still has this undeniable gravitational pull when he’s within the frame.

Instead of portraying a priest, as he did in last year’s “The Pope’s Exorcist,” he’s an actor portraying a priest (what range!) in this movie-in-a-movie affair.

Crowe’s Tony Miller only snagged the gig after the other actor’s death, this being the former’s first meaningful gig after years of public, alcohol-fueled embarrassments. He now wonders if his late wife’s battle with cancer was really the excuse for this self-destructive behavior he once thought it was.

“Her being sick gave me a reason to just disconnect,” he tells an unseen priest during a Catholic confession.

Before filming begins, his attitude-filled 16-year-old daughter, Lee (Ryan Simpkins, “Sherrybaby”) — who calls him “Tony,” which he doesn’t love — returns home, her father having pulled strings to get her school expulsion reduced to a suspension.

Soon, they’re both on set, Lee working as a production assistant and Tony immediately disappointing the film’s high-minded director, Peter (Adam Goldberg), who believes he’s making a psychological drama disguised as a horror flick. Peter has no reservations about trying to pull a better performance from Tony by reminding him of his recent failures as a person, as well as his traumatic time years earlier as an altar boy.

Tony begins to unravel, but, of course, there may be something darker than subpar acting afoot.

That’s all well and fine, and, for a while, “The Exorcism” is intermittently — if also only mildly — scary as Tony takes his work and demons home with Lee. Before long, though, this roughly 90-minute offering is going predictably over-the-top, with an unmistakably otherworldly on-set incident involving Tony somehow not shutting down the production.

 

Like the movie-within-the-movie, “The Exorcism” trudges on, with supporting players who include wonderful-to-see “Frasier” alum David Hyde Pierce, playing a priest with a degree in psychology consulting on the production; “Avatar” franchise star (and fellow Aussie) Sam Worthington, as an actor who looks up to Tony and also is playing a priest; and singer-songwriter Chloe Bailey, as an actress who portrays the young woman who becomes possessed in the film and who becomes romantically entangled with Lee.

(It seems possible the film being made in “The Exorcism” is a remake of “The Exorcist,” which, in reality, saw the reboot effort “The Exorcist: Believer” be poorly received last year by audience members and critics alike. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.)

If the meta aspects of “The Exorcism” bring to mind the ongoing “Scream” movie franchise, it won’t come as a shock to learn its creator, Kevin Williamson, is counted among its producers.

In their filmmakers’ statement, Miller and Fortin say they began writing the film in 2019, when, during the presidency of Donald Trump, they watched “certain segments of the Christian faith go after LGBT folks” and “there wasn’t much that didn’t feel cursed anymore.”

Some of that emotion does come through in “The Exorcism,” which is commendable. However, it doesn’t change the fact that at best this is a quick-and-easy popcorn movie when — given its inspiration, structure and connection to “The Exorcist” — it could have been something more.

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‘THE EXORCISM’

2 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for language, some violent content, sexual references and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:35

How to watch: Now in theaters

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©2024 The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio). Visit The News-Herald (Willoughby, Ohio) at www.news-herald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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