I have tried to tackle this review more than once. I will say, first of all, that THE EXORCISM OF GOD is bananapants.
After watching it a few times, I have come to the conclusion that it is sort of a hybrid of the old-style exploitation horror films grafted onto a new style, more socially conscious filmmaking. It has a sad-faced priest, who truly means well but is weak, who attempts to perform an exorcism on a demon-possessed woman because he really cares. However, since he is weak, he is tempted by naked, sweaty boobs, gets possessed by the demon, improbably named Balban, and the demon uses him to rape the now-not-possessed, unconscious woman.
I am completely serious about this.
Here’s the actual synopsis of the film: “Father Peter Williams, an American exorcist, hides a shocking secret: possessed by a demon he was trying to expel, he committed a terrible sacrilege. To atone for this sin, Peter devotes his life to charity work in a small town in Mexico. Eighteen years later, his deeply buried secret comes to light when the demon from his past returns, possessing a girl and unleashing a deadly disease. Now Peter must choose between saving his own soul and saving the people he loves most in one final, epic battle against the evil within.”
The film starts with a very well done, straight-up homage to one of the most revered shots in The Exorcist. As a fan of The Exorcist, I was impressed. They managed to evoke the mood of the original quite well with a low budget. I was also impressed by the casting and performances of many of the supporting cast of actors and the leads. I have to give them credit for really committing to their roles with gusto. Many parts of this film are totally flabbergasting and they work because of the commitment of the cast and the direction. Now, not everyone is going to like the content of some of these scenes, but within the context of the film and the story’s parameters, it doesn’t cheat and makes sense.
I suspected as much, but I read in the director’s statement that this film comes from a place of seriousness. The most telling part of Alejandro Hidalgo’s statement is its final sentence where Hidalgo writes, “The Exorcism of God is my statement that there is not always a true communion between spirituality and religion.”
To me, it seems like the film, in its plot, characterizations, and themes are critical of the Catholic Church and the Vatican, in particular. The well-meaning priest is rewarded for lying and perpetuating the dogma of the Church rather than when he tries to genuinely repent and perform penance for his sins. Both of the exorcists in the film don’t seem to have much faith in the Catholic ritual of exorcism and the film expands upon the idea, touched upon in the original film – The Exorcist, that maybe exorcisms don’t actually work at all. The problems of priests who have shaky faith or who are worn out by years of being asked to fight demonic forces with a ritual that hasn’t been improved upon by The Church for centuries.
This is weighty thematic content for a film where you hear a demon-possessed priest unbuckle his pants, grunt in sexual pleasure, and zip up his pants after the demon releases him. The one thing that seemed a little too convenient was that the demon released him after he grabbed his cross and cried out as the exorcisms don’t seem to be cutting it. It’s also well done as what could be a truly offensive scene that isn’t shown but suggested by sound. The woman isn’t shown being forcefully raped by the demon-possessed priest but seen as an innocent face and body. The distinction is made between the passive evil of the priest, his weakness, his lust, and lack of faith, and the active evil of the demon that uses him as a tool. It is much more aligned with the ideas of spirituality that tells us that when we are weak that we make ourselves tools for evil. That’s why I feel that even though the film uses the exploitation aspects of filmmaking, it does not descend into true depravity despite what actually happens in the film. The film extends the ideas in at least two of the films in The Exorcist series, the original, directed by William Friedkin, and Exorcist III directed by William Peter Blatty. The weak and faithless priests and demons using the insane as easily possessed vessels are those ideas respectively.
For what it is, the film is well made. There are obvious limitations to the filmmaking due to budget, but the director Alejandro Hidalgo does the most with what he has and makes good use of the locations that he has to work with and the actors who he hired for the roles.
In particular, Hector Kotsifakis (“Malverde: El Santo Patrón”, Gringo) as Dr. Nelson was very likable and gave a really good performance especially since his character didn’t have a lot of time in the script and wasn’t given the more meaty characterizations that actors crave. He filled in the blanks himself and made his character and his somewhat brief time on screen stand out. Irán Castillo (“SOS Me estoy enamorando”, Llos secretos de Lucía”) as Megali does a good job with personality and kindness that shows the woman’s good soul and then flips to evil. María Gabriela de Faría (Deadly Class, Yo Soy Frankie) as Esperanza brings a physicality that is also otherworldly to the role as the possessed young woman. Alfredo Herrera (“Fear The Walking Dead”, “Dios Inc.”) has a wonderful time as Possessed Jesus.
Will Beinbrink (It Chapter Two, “Dark”) makes his timid and faithless priest human and relatable. It’s a good performance of a person who’s not admirable. He manages to create a distinction between himself as the priest eighteen years before and in the film’s present day. It differs from Jason Miller’s more forceful portrayal of a priest who doesn’t really believe. His performance is more relatable than Miller’s classic portrayal and appropriate for the material. Joseph Marcell (“Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air”) is the film’s comic relief. The film does bring this type of character from exploitation films past. Yes, he did play Geoffrey the Butler for anyone wondering. In this film, he gets to cut loose a bit as the Mezcal drinking priest and it is fun to watch, but he does deliver the title line with total sincerity in a chilling way.
Another saving grace of the film is its weirdness and real and effective scares. I didn’t think that the sheet trick was going to work on me at this point, but Hidalgo made it work and work well. There is a certain reliance on jump scares, but they are jump scares that are good. I think the more subtle types of scares work the best for the film though. The drip of blood on a nun’s face. A nun being pulled into a dark doorway. Possessed Jesus dragging the cross down a hallway lit by sunlight coming through overhead windows. The film is quite stylish and effective for what it is working with financially.
Alejandro Hidalgo is a Venezuelan filmmaker who made the first Venezuelan horror film which was one of the most widely distributed Venezuelan films in history, The House At The End Of Time. A Korean remake of the film has already been made and an American remake is in the works with Hidalgo attached as a producer and director. He’s done very good work with THE EXORCISM OF GOD, taking material that could have been very bad in another filmmaker’s hands and giving it weight and purpose.
I will watch almost any film about exorcism, but I normally find myself let down most of those films. THE EXORCISM OF GOD did not let me down. Santiago Fernández Calvete and Hidalgo wrote a good script that is the framework of some of the truly gobsmacking action. The film is daring and outrageous like an exploitation film, but has subtlety and an underlying subtext that gives the action a lot more heft than it might appear on the surface. It’s much more interesting and has more to say than your average exorcism film. With commitment, THE EXORCISM OF GOD makes you a believer.
The horror film THE EXORCISM OF GOD is now available in theaters, on Demand and Digital.