Russell Crowe engages in gladiatorial combat with the devil in this half-baked horror film, set in Spain but made in Ireland. Crowe plays Father Gabriele Amorth, a whisky-quaffing, Vespa-riding Catholic priest who is called on by the Pope (Franco Nero) whenever there is a troublesome case of Satanic mischief.
Father Gabriele is an expert psychologist as well as a man of God. 98% of his cases involve delusion and mental illness. But in 2%, he’s up against real evil. Gabriele, a gruff, no-nonsense figure with a strange habit of making wisecracks at moments of maximum tension (apparently the devil doesn’t like jokes), speaks English with a heavy Italian accent.
It’s the late 1980s. There are tensions at the Vatican. A new generation of Cardinals disapprove of Father Gabriele’s blunt force tactics and want him censured and expelled. The Pope, though, still regards him as a vitally trusted ally.
When a little American boy Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is possessed by Old Nick, Father Gabriele is dispatched to investigate. The boy and his family have just arrived in Spain, Henry’s father having died in a car accident the year before. His mother Julia (Alex Essoe) has no money. They’ve inherited a derelict medieval abbey in Castile, which they’re planning to do up and sell.
All the familiar ingredients (gore, vomit, cracking bones, ectoplasm) are thrown into the mix. The boy suddenly begins speaking in a deep, menacing, Darth Vader-like voice. He has superhuman strength and tries to throttle both his mother and his teenage sister Amy (Laurel Marsden) who, at one stage, starts climbing up the wall like a demented insect. The boy scrawls obscenities on his own flesh and bites the ears off Catholic priests. While Father Gabriele is trying to work out how to thwart him, the ailing Pope is doing frantic research into the links between the abbey and the most horrific atrocities committed during the Spanish Inquisition.
Early on, the film is quite fun in its own bloodcurdling way. Director Avery (best known previously for his Second World War horror film Overlord) takes viewers on a haunted house-style fairground ride, complete with slamming doors, crucifixes turning upside down and mattresses that swallow up the bodies lying on them. The devil, we discover, feeds on victims’ guilt. His ultimate ambition is to take over the soul of Father Gabriele himself and thereby make the entire holy church “crumble from the inside”. Gabriele is racked with guilt over his experiences as a resistance fighter in the Second World War and over his part in the death of a troubled young woman. This may be the weakness that Beelzebub can exploit.
Crowe’s demeanour as the priest is that of a gruff veteran plumber on an emergency call, dealing with an especially recalcitrant boiler. Nothing throws him. He uses every trick at his disposal. If praying doesn’t work, he’ll hold a crucifix in the evil one’s face instead. He has assistance from a younger priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), who is courageous but very naive.
The longer the film lasts, the sillier it becomes. The final reel showdown in the catacombs beneath the abbey is especially absurd, and before long subtlety and suspense are completely abandoned in favour of explosive cheap thrills.
As the filmmakers should surely have realised, the best movies about demonic possession are rooted in psychological realism. They draw the audience in first through their characterisation and storytelling before they get going in earnest with the head-spinning and the spider walks. That’s why they’re so terrifying.
Here, by contrast, the shock tactics are too crude and too predictable ever really to make our flesh crawl.