The exorcism subgenre can be a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s so easy to rely on cheap makeup effects and jump scares in order to quickly turn a profit, which is fine, but the ones that really stand out are those that truly have something to say. Every subgenre within horror is capable of being a platform to tell your story or to make a statement, but the film can easily get lost in a sea of cheap cash grabs. For me, zombie and exorcism films definitely fall into that danger zone of becoming swept away. To stand out, such movies really need to find something new to say or develop a unique take on the tried and true classics. Alejandro Hidalgo’s The Exorcism of God makes a bold attempt to add some controversial social commentary into a fairly standard exorcism film, but is that enough to make it stand out in the crowd?
After being contacted about the potential demonic possession of a teenage girl in a Mexican town, American priest Father Peter Williams (Will Beinbrink) attempts an exorcism alone after being ordered to wait for a more senior priest to arrive. He fears that the demon is trying to kill the girl and deems it necessary to attempt the rite alone. Hidalgo does a great job setting up a creepy atmosphere around this possession with a very convenient lightning storm and dark shadowy rooms, perfect for setting up some expertly timed jump scares. I’m not sure if it is just budget constraints or the personal preference of the director, but I really never liked the full CGI demon-possessed look in films like Paranormal Activity or Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist and call me old school (or just old, and get off my lawn!) but I really prefer the practical makeup of Regan in The Exorcist. Hidalgo must share a similar view to mine because the makeup effects on the possessed individuals look to be practical with a few added CG touches. Those little touches might make or break the film for you, but the practical effects go a long way for me. They just feel more tangible and grounded not to mention they give the actor more freedom in their performance.
Because Father Peter Williams goes into this exorcism alone he is completely underprepared and the demon possessing the girl knows it. It seeks to tempt Father Williams in any way and it turns out the quickest way to tempt Father Williams is through sex. Playing on his celibacy and the temptations that go hand in hand with this vow, the demon leads Father Williams to believe that he has succeeded in the exorcism only to draw him close enough to touch him and in turn possess him instead. Sure this is old hat, but the newly possessed Father Williams ends up raping the possessed girl all while being filmed on the tape that was set up to record the exorcism. If you just had an “oh s**t!” moment when reading that, you are definitely not alone. While the scene builds up to this I never really thought that Hidalgo would go there, but he definitely did. Thankfully the event isn’t shown on screen, but rather just implied which is tasteful for the story. Father Williams seems to realize what he has done and quickly shuts off the camcorder and covers the girl before others come into the room praising him for a successful exorcism. Father Williams is considered a saint for being able to perform such a rite on his own.
The film then flashes eighteen years into the future and we see a montage of all of the good deeds that Father Williams has done in this Mexican town. To be clear, these are all things that we would expect to see a good priest doing like helping farmers distribute goods to a needy community and delivering supplies to the local children’s hospital. Everyone in the town reveres him. They all consider him to be a genuine saint, but no one knows what really happened all those years ago when was possessed.
The rest of the narrative centers around the demon that now holds Father Williams trying to break him of his faith. It is mostly subtle, through dreams and images, but the demon pinpoints the guilt that he feels about what happened in the past. I really don’t want to spoil it, but there is one particular image that Father Williams sees that will honestly stick with you for a long time. It is important to note that he has confessed his sin to his superior, Father Michael Lewis (Joseph Marcell) and Lewis tells him that his penance is to confess his sin to the Bishop of the local diocese. I only tell you this because it plays heavily into my interpretation of the story that Alejandro Hidalgo is trying to tell. In the time since the exorcism, Williams has maintained that it wasn’t really his actions but the demon. He admits that it happened, but concludes that he wasn’t responsible and that if he truly confessed he would lose his position in the church. Now I don’t know about you, but I can see where Hidalgo is going with this one.
The sex and abuse scandals of the Catholic Church are far reaching and, as of late, they have started to become public. I don’t think much mental gymnastics are needed to connect Father Williams’ assault of the young girl to the sex scandals of the Church and much like we have seen in the news, many people defend the abusers in the Church by talking about how good of a person they are and the good they do for their community. Hidalgo is asking the audience an important question: can Father Williams be redeemed? Should his excuse that he was possessed matter because it didn’t matter to the girl that he violated. As the past starts catching up to Father Williams, the demon that possessed him makes a reappearance, forcing their history out into the open.
I really liked the tone and the questions that Hidalgo brings forward in the first two acts of The Exorcism of God as they are some pretty genuinely tough subjects to tackle. Father Williams is a staple in the community and almost all of the help they receive wouldn’t be possible without Father Williams, but he has committed this horrible act and has yet to truly take ownership of it. Granted, the town doesn’t know what he has done, but the audience is aware and so is Father Williams. Does all of his good deeds outweigh the one horrible action from his past? I won’t give you the answer that Hidalgo goes with because the journey to this answer is the whole point of the final act.
I’ll be honest, when I first watched The Exorcism of God I didn’t really feel like it stuck the ending for me. There is a scene with some questionable CGI that really took me out of the moment and it wasn’t necessary, but I also wasn’t sure at the time that the story was really resolved by the end. Looking back a couple of days later, I have sat with that ending the whole time and it clearly had some effect because I am still thinking about it. It may not have been the ending that I really wanted, but I definitely felt it fit the story and left me pondering some of the bigger questions of the film.
This movie will definitely appeal to anyone who is a fan of a good exorcism (who isn’t?), but I think that the bigger questions it asks will really pique the interest of those who want more than just a few good jump scares. The Exorcism of God is beautifully shot and with some great performances by Will Beinbrink and Joseph Marcell, it easily stood out for me as an exorcism film that I would happily revisit.
The Exorcism of God was screened as part of the 2021 Fantastic Fest.