It’s hard to pick the most surreal part of Julius Avery’s new horror film. It could be that the main character is based on the very real Rev. Gabriele Amorth, who used to be the Vatican’s chief exorcist (in a head-spinning twist, William Friedkin, the director of “The Exorcist,” once made a documentary about him). Or maybe it’s that Father Amorth is portrayed as an espresso-drinking, scooter-riding maverick by Russell Crowe in one of his most engaging performances in years. He is dispatched by the Pope (the cult Italian actor Franco Nero) to an isolated Spanish abbey where a young boy, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), has started producing ungodly growls, changing colors and shapes, and making inappropriate moves on his mother (Alex Essoe, a Mike Flanagan horror regular).
Amorth has his work cut out for him, but luckily he is paired with the inexperienced but game Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto), which adds a dollop of buddy-priest action comedy to an already genre-full plate. The two men have excellent, er, chemistry with the ancestral evil figure who has taken over Henry and is magnificently voiced by Ralph Ineson. Avery (“Samaritan”) drives the film at a pace as caffeinated as Amorth himself, and manages to incorporate legitimate scares into a plot halfway between Indiana Jones and a Dan Brown potboiler, with camp touches worthy of Ken Russell.
“The Pope’s Exorcist” ends with a shameless suggestion that there is room for a sequel or even an entire series. It is not an unwelcome prospect.
The Pope’s Exorcist
Rated R for demon-induced expletives and glimpses of naked ladies. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.