Image: Russel Crowe in “The Pope’s Exorcist”
Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.
By Joseph Holmes
(REVIEW) Lovers of religious horror films are eating well this year.
On April 14, two demon possession movies hit theaters: “The Pope’s Exorcist,” a Hollywood exorcism film starring Russel Crowe, and “Nefarious,” an indie faith-based film written and directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, the team behind “God’s Not Dead” and “Unplanned.”
I would have never guessed that, of these two movies, the one made by the creators of “God’s Not Dead” would be better — yet that’s exactly the case.
“The Pope’s Exorcist” is based loosely (emphasis on loosely) on the writings of Father Gabrielle Amorth, chief exorcist to the Vatican until his death in 2016. The story follows Russel Crowe as the titular exorcist as he investigates a child possession that leads him to the discovery of a centuries-long cover up by the Vatican with world-ending implications.
“The Pope’s Exorcist” is fun, at times, and Crowe’s Father Amorth is easily the highlight. He plays the real-life priest with a grounded playfulness that makes him a delight to watch whenever he’s onscreen. And who doesn’t like watching exorcists fight demons?
But the problem with the movie is that it really doesn’t commit to saying or being anything. It’s almost exclusively half-hearted Hollywood exorcism tropes, none of which are explored aesthetically or thematically beyond the surface. They explain the rules of the world — how to get rid of demons and how not to surrender to Satan — which are broken too easily to service the plot. The movie can’t decide if it wants to be serious or campy and fun, so it becomes neither.
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Basically, it’s everything people dislike about Hollywood: It has nothing to say and all the money to say it.
“Nefarious,” on the other hand, has something to say, and it leans into it with the force of a sledgehammer.
“Nefarious” tells the story of a psychiatrist brought to a prison to evaluate a death-row inmate because the warden thinks he’s faking his insanity plea. When the inmate claims to the psychiatrist that he’s a demon, an intense cat-and-mouse game begins between the two.
The strength of Christian films, like most indie films, has always been that they actually have a point to make. Christian films always have a “message,” typically a message that is at least somewhat countercultural: Christians should stand for their faith against cultural pressure, abortion is wrong, prayer works and other tenets of Christian belief.
The movie is full of points it wants to make. It makes fun of progressive pastors who deny demons. It rejects the notion that the world is getting better (something I ironically enjoyed). It condemns abortion and euthanasia. It does all of these things in the strongest possible terms. Above all, it shows that the greatest danger is pretending that evil things aren’t evil.
Often, in faith-based films, the message is conveyed poorly. The dialogue is cheesy and preachy, and characters don’t ring true to real life.
Ironically, the team behind “Nefarious” has often been guilty of this very thing. I consider “God’s Not Dead” and “Unplanned” to be two of the worst-written Christian films I’ve ever seen. So how did they do such a good job this time?
The ingenious secret weapon of this movie’s dialogue is its heavy dose of snark. Nearly every line is flavored to the max with the sarcasm between characters, driven by their mild to utter contempt for each other. Whether it’s the psychiatrist and the demon/inmate in their verbal chess match or the warden and the psychiatrist tolerating each other as they both just try to do their jobs, the dialogue is witty and sharp to the end.
The warden doesn’t give the psychiatrist plot exposition, he grumbles it. The demon doesn’t preach his opinion about humanity, he sneers it — and the psychiatrist sneers back his objections. This means that even when the dialogue is transparently preachy (which, given the creators, is frankly most of it) it’s still wildly entertaining.
Because the writers have learned to salt their dialogue with the flavor of snark, they can make the points they want to about the modern world with the bite of effective satire rather than eye-rolling cringe.
Another way “Nefarious” commits to its material in ways that “The Pope’s Exorcist” does not is its horror elements. “The Pope’s Exorcist” plays it very safe with its horror, mostly flipping through a Rolodex of predictable jump scares.
“Nefarious,” on the other hand, is truly disturbing. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of nihilistic horror films of the 7’0s — like “The Omen,” “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Exorcist” — or even modern films like “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” These movies show us evil so horrifying that it gets under our skin in ways we can’t shake. The fact that a faith-based film did this so well blows my mind. Two moments in particular — the demon’s reaction to an abortion and a couple of its creatively cruel tortures toward its host body — will stick with me forever.
But of course, being that disturbing is exactly what the movie needed to get its point across emotionally: that this kind of evil is evil, and we can’t downplay its evil or we will become evil ourselves. Christian filmmakers often tell rather than show and believe it will have the same power. They are wrong, and movies like this are right.
Of course, “Nefarious” isn’t perfect. At the very end, it reverts to the classic preaching style of dialogue for a flavorless, dull-as-bricks interview scene where the protagonist spoon feeds the audience exactly what they need to get out of the film. The movie’s themes and emotional climax also would have been stronger if it had been more character study than theological exposition. If it had explored the ways that the protagonist had slowly been giving into the devil throughout his life without knowing it, it would have prompted the audience to do the same thing for themselves, and given the protagonist’s final choice at the end more emotional weight.
Movies like “Nefarious” highlight what faith-based films can add to the world that Hollywood films like “The Pope’s Exorcist” do not: a commitment to a countercultural point of view. If faith-based films can continue to improve in their method of delivery like this movie does, they will be a valuable force in American cinema.
Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers.