Fantastic Fest 2021: The Exorcism of God

Jarring tonal shifts and an inability to truly dive deep on its central concept leave this feeling like a missed opportunity.

Synopsis: The story of “The Exorcism of God” follows father “Peter Williams”, an American exorcist who, being possessed by a demon he was trying to expel, ends up committing the most terrible sacrilege. Eighteen years later, the consequences of his sin will come back to haunt him, unleashing the greatest battle against the evil within.

Alejandro Hidalgo’s debut feature The House at the End of Time arrived in 2013 – a smart, supernatural horror with a sci-fi edge that hinted at a sharp horror-focused mind. The Exorcism of God marks his second feature and again, marks the director as someone keen to play with genre conventions and ideas, although to less success. It is clear that the point of the film is satirical, which does allow it some reprieve, but it still doesn’t work as an entire unit for the most part.

Will Beinbrink plays Peter Williams, who we meet in 2003 enduring a particularly difficult exorcism. Falling prey to a demon who seeks to corrupt him during the ritual, he is left shaken and desperate to redeem himself. In the present, his transgressions are never far from the surface, threatening to upend his now-stellar reputation.

Much of the problem with The Exorcism of God is in its tone. It is, by some turns immensely po-faced, serious and consumed with its own sense of morality, while on another, wishing to indulge in noisy, CGI-heavy effects to throw scares. Those two clashing desires make the material that should hit harder difficult to take seriously and while there are some hints at self-awareness in the performances, the overall package attempts to play both sides, but succeeds fully in neither. Even though this is satire, there is little to cling to – it makes its most obvious points quickly then has to spend much of the time re-treading the same points. The film doesn’t come with a trigger warning although most can hazard a guess at the priest’s central sin and this is not exactly dealt with in the most enlightened terms, with demonic sexuality pushed to the forefront.

Exorcism films are over saturated, meaning any new forays into telling those stories need to have something new to offer. The Exorcism of God does, in this regard explore something that has become apparent in the evolution of exorcism films that have strayed further into critiques of institutions, rather than viewing the Church as a remedy to all ills. This is a cheap plug for some of my previous writing that you can find here. In its foregrounding of a fallen priest as its core concept, The Exorcism of God has the potential to explore this in more depth, but can’t follow through on this, remaining on the surface for the most part. Beinbrink is solid in the lead role, having to command much of the runtime but it is difficult to connect to a character when the film doesn’t quite probe his state of mind enough. It also fails to interrogate his actions in any way approaching an acceptable level.

Stained nightdresses, contact lenses, throaty voices and contortions abound, particularly in the latter sections. There are a few images that work well and overcome the slightly cartoonish, easily parodied representations. The addition of so much overt sexuality is a bit of a surprise too, with possessed women taking on the characteristics of brides of Dracula, as opposed to the more conventional presentation. This definitely edges into the distasteful with little pay-off. This high energy and occasional dips into almost soap-opera style plotlines make for a strange mixture that may not land for everyone.

An energetic, imprecise take on the possession movie that provided you aren’t looking for anything profound and embrace its alternating schlocky and earnest tone you might well find something in.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

The Exorcism of God screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information.

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.

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