[Review] 'The Exorcism of God' is an Emotionally Flat though Entertaining Funhouse of Demonic Horrors
When you see a title like The Exorcism of God, the first thing that may come to mind is that if God is possessed, surely, we’re all fucked…
…Can’t argue with you there.
And while that isn’t quite the story, Alejandro Hidalgo’s sophomore feature does present a tale guaranteed to give you a good scare.
Written by Hidalgo and Santiago Fernandez Calvete, The Exorcism of God opens with a priest named Peter (Will Beinbrink), who is forced to perform an exorcism alone, resulting in an act that leaves him guilt ridden and questioning his faith. Eighteen years later, Peter is searching for peace in Mexico City, where he helps the poor and does his best to be a good man. But when Peter and his mentor Michael (Joseph Marcell) are tasked with expelling a demon from prisoner Esperanza (Maria Gabriela de Faria), Peter must face the sin that has haunted him for decades if he has any hopes of surviving.
The Exorcism of God tosses audiences right into the hellfire, flooding the screen with atmospherics as the film begins with a tumultuous storm coupled with a score from Elik Alvarez and Yoncarlos Medina that is just as thunderous and haunting. The composers employ sounds of church bells and a choir that might as well be from Hell that effectively creeps under the skin. We meet a younger Peter arriving at the home of a woman possessed by a freaky deaky demon named Balban, a nasty little shit that gives Pazuzu a run for his money in terms of sadistic tendencies, done up with a combination of disturbing makeup and digital touches that add an otherworldly quality. Beds fly. Tongues flap. And Hidalgo even includes a shot ripped straight from the iconic image of Father Merrin arriving outside the home of Regan, fog machines working overtime and all.
Hidalgo isn’t trying to hide the inspirations of what has come before in the exorcist genre. Instead, he fully indulges in them. You know what they say, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”, and The Exorcism of God has all of the familiar tropes of your standard exorcism movie that fans of these films will no doubt enjoy.
In a genre overflowing with exorcisms gone bad, The Exorcism of God is one of the better examples I’ve seen lately when it comes to scaring the bejeezus out of viewers. Considering much of the film takes place in a third world prison—the perfect setting for a hellish battle—every corner of The Exorcism of God feels a bit like hell itself. Outside of rare, bright instances where Peter is actually content as he helps others, Hidalgo and cinematographer Gerard Uzcategui plunge the film into a cold darkness that feels alive. Shot in a bluish-grey tint, scenes appear as if they take place in another dimension full of death and decay that’s vaguely similar to the look of a James Wan Conjuring film. It’s enough to allow Hidalgo to consistently build a tight tension that possesses the viewers and makes the shocks count.
This film is perfect frightfest popcorn fare. More campy than infused with dread, I doubt this is one that will keep seasoned horror fans up at night, but it more than succeeds as a funhouse of horrors. Effective jump scares and frightening imagery lurk in every shadow. Aside from encountering scary as hell demons, Peter is also haunted by the image of a possessed, crucified Christ, and trust me when I say you haven’t seen true horror until you’ve seen a demonic Jesus crabwalk straight at you. Hell. No. Hidalgo is masterful when it comes to crafting good scares, refusing to let the (great, mind you) score take over the scene, instead letting the silence enhance an unsettling sound design that squishes, pops and growls. Where most horror films would hit you over the head with music that leads the scene, Hidalgo lets the quiet prod at your nerves instead.
The Exorcism of God is the soul food of exorcism films, leagues tastier than that stale bread they serve at communion and not at all concerned with being “good” for you.
The film maintains an entertaining energy throughout, but perhaps doesn’t take itself seriously enough when it needs to. The actors certainly give it their all in this dark twist on the tortured priest narrative, but each and every performance goes above and beyond to an exaggerative level that makes for quite a few unintended laughs (except for de Faria’s deliciously devilish portrayal, oddly the only one that feels “natural”). Everything from the dialogue to the emotion of the scene and beyond is turned up so high it borderlines parody, and yes, you better believe there is at least one “the power of Christ compels you”!
That’s all well and fine and totally my jam—who doesn’t love fun horror?—and could be the point as there is some biting commentary on the church, but the excessiveness of it all detracts from what seems intended to be an otherwise emotional story that falls as flat as the cross Peter wears around his neck. The longer The Exorcism of God goes on, the more ridiculous it becomes. And just when you think the moments that are meant to be taken seriously can’t be any more crucified, a finale hits that damn near brings it all crashing down with a scene that I swear would fit right in with Leslie Nielsen’s Repossessed.
Nonsensical as it is, Hidalgo still delivers an exorcism film with a few new tricks under its priest’s robe, for better or worse, along with plenty of blood-curdling scares to make up for its flaws and a wild third act that takes the terror to another level before that massive stumble. The script doesn’t always work and the emotional stakes are anything but, yet Hidalgo’s direction is superb, making this well worth a watch for any possession movie fan seeking a good scream.
The Exorcism of God comes to VOD on March 11th from Saban Films.
By Matt Konopka