The Exorcism: Russell Crowe film-set meta horror has promise but doesn’t quite convince

In 2020, horror streaming service Shudder debuted a documentary series entitled Cursed Films, which examined films (primarily horror films such as Poltergeist, The Exorcist and The Omen) that had allegedly suffered in one way or another from some kind of supernatural calamity during production.

This idea of course feels aligned with horror productions, where their invoking of evil and, in some cases, the supernatural, goes hand in hand with the idea of a curse.

Yet while the instance of cursed film sets in real life can often be just as easily dismissed as attempts to reckon with the death or injury of some of those involved in the production, The Exorcism, starring Russell Crowe, takes the concept to the extreme. Crowe’s character, troubled actor Tony Miller, is literally possessed by a demon on the set of his latest film, known as “The Georgetown Project”.

The Exorcism makes no bones about its engagement with perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time – The Exorcist. First opening with an ill-fated actor rehearsing his lines as the film’s priest (“she barfs, she screams, I’m dead”), The Georgetown Project is later positioned as a reboot of The Exorcist, with Tony’s daughter Lee (ably played by Ryan Simpkins) incredulous they’d even attempt it.

This direct connection to The Exorcist is also foregrounded behind the scenes of The Exorcism, with real-life director Joshua John Miller being the son of actor Jason Miller who played Father Damien Karras in the 1973 film, neatly adding to the meta-narrative of The Exorcist itself.

While Miller’s historic ties to The Exorcist act as an intriguing hook for the film’s metatextual elements, The Exorcism is also produced by Kevin Williamson, who, alongside director Wes Craven, is widely credited as the godfather of meta horror as the writer of Scream.

In fact, it is Scream 3 that comes to mind in The Exorcism’s horror set pieces, with actors inventively killed off on set. It is within these self-referential moments on the set of The Georgetown Project that The Exorcism works best.

Adam Goldberg’s arrogant director is good value, with his insistence that their The Exorcist remake is not in fact, a horror film, but a “psychological thriller”. This acts as a nice tongue-in-cheek nod to the post-horror debate and the odd perception that in order to be an important film, you cannot, under any circumstances, be perceived as a horror film.

Trauma and grief

Yet despite the film lightly needling the pretentiousness of the post-horror label, it can’t really resist leaning into a key trope of the recent post-horror cycle – an emphasis on trauma and grief as a key motivation for a character.

In Post Horror (2021), his book on this contemporary cycle of films, David Church dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls Grief, Mourning and the Horrors of Familial Inheritance, in which he notes that, “many post-horror films feature a major character who seems trapped in an emotional limbo that they are unable to get beyond”.

While The Exorcism by no means fits within the parameters of a post-horror film (its overreliance on jump scares puts paid to that), the amount of grief and trauma attached to Crowe’s character is so excessive to be almost on the verge of parody. The fact that the audience is given this information in almost back-to-back exposition scenes also doesn’t help the feeling that the film is trying a little too hard for pathos.

Yet while this traumatic backstory can sometimes feel laboured, it gives good material to Crowe and Simpkins to sink their teeth into, and they are both reliably strong as the co-leads of the film. However, in terms of the narrative, this emphasis on traumatic backstory ultimately creates a schism between the meta-madness happening on set of The Georgetown Project, and the recurring family discussions around abuse, addiction and loss.

This leads to the elephant in the room, which is Crowe’s turn as the Catholic church’s number one demon defeater in another recent film, The Pope’s Exorcist.

Released only last year, the serendipity of two Russell Crowe-led exorcism movies arriving in the space of two years invites comparisons, despite both films being very different in their approach and overall intentions. While I’m not looking to christen The Pope’s Exorcist as a contemporary horror masterpiece, it has a sense of humour and lightness on its feet that The Exorcism shows only glimmers of.

In the latter, Crowe is hemmed in by a character rendered almost passive, first through his own trauma, and then by the demon that possesses him, with the actor only being allowed to fully unleash his star power in a few of the film’s later set pieces.

One thing both The Pope’s Exorcist and The Exorcism do have in common is an unfortunate third-act collapse, with The Exorcism’s finale feeling so rushed that key characters simply fall by the wayside. A case in point being The Georgetown Project’s director, who seems to exist solely for a horrible death scene, only to escape that fate but disappear for the film’s final 20 minutes.

The Exorcism is by no means a disaster – it has two dependable lead performances in Crowe and Simpkins and enjoys some fun with the film-within-a-film setting. But it suffers from a tonal imbalance and a lack of inventive scares overall. If you’re looking for a good time with Russell Crowe and an exorcism, this one sadly comes second best.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Kieran Foster does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.