’The Exorcist’ legend looms large in this horror starring Russell Crowe as a troubled actor losing his mind on set

The Exorcism

Source: Miramax

‘The Exorcism’

Dir: Joshua John Miller. USA. 2024. 94mins

Digging into horror lore right from the opening sequence, The Exorcism initially promises an intriguingly meta take on a well-stocked sub-genre. Featuring a committed performance from Russell Crowe as a troubled actor whose role in a scary movie unleashes past traumas — and maybe something more sinister — it starts strongly, exploring the link between guilt, faith and the stories we tell ourselves to navigate those dark nights of the soul. But it soon casts out any such psychological nuance to embrace all the cliches of a possession picture, losing much of its potential impact in the process. 

All the cliches of a posession picture

It’s no secret that the film-within-a-film here, codenamed ’The Georgetown Project’, is a retelling of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror The Exorcist — it’s all there in that opener, as an ill-fated actor prowls a townhouse set stuffed with detail that will be instantly recognisable to genre fans. The Exorcism’s director Joshua John Miller is the son of actor Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in Friedkin’s film, adding delicious depth; Miller knows first-hand the stories that have surrounded the making of The Exorcism— the so-called curse and unfortunate incidents — and plays heavily on them. 

Despite David Gordon Green’s woeful 2023 reboot Exorcist: Believer, there’s still plenty of mileage left in this franchise – Mike Flannigan’s forthcoming installment has just been announced by Universal. And while The Exorcism is not an official entry into the Exorcist canon, it’s these familiar elements that should appeal to viewers when the film releases in the UK and US on June 21, having already opened in other territories in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, although it may find a larger audience when it eventually hits streaming (Shudder has pay-one rights).

This is a trajectory followed by similarly-themed 2023 horror The Pope’s Exorcist, also starring Crowe, which grossed $77m before becoming a hit on Netflix US – a success which spurred this film to finally be completed. (It originally wrapped in December 2019, with additional filming delayed largely thanks to the pandemic. In 2023, following The Pope’s Exorcist, extensive reshoots began, with post-production finishing earlier this year.)

To be fair, that patchwork approach only really reveals itself in the final third as, having carefully set up its scenario, the film barrels towards an obvious and dull conclusion. Before then, however, we spend plenty of time with faded New York City actor Anthony Miller (Crowe, also mining his own chequered on- and off-screen history), whose previous drug and alcohol abuse has been well documented in the media, and has driven a wedge between himself and his 16-year-old daughter Lee (Ryan Simpkins).

Now clean, and hoping for professional as well as spiritual redemption, Tony books an acting gig as the priest in a horror movie directed by the pushy, self-absorbed Peter (Adam Goldberg). As he gets deeper into character, Tony becomes troubled by visions of his past — childhood abuse at the hands of Catholic priests being heavily hinted at — his grief and guilt opening the door for darker forces to take hold. (Darkness also being the film’s entire visual register, with its shadowy corners and murky stairwells housing a variety of jump scares of varying effectiveness.)

That blurring of the lines between trauma, addiction and performance is well-played at first, as Tony tries to keep a grip on himself in the face of stress and provocation. In another knowing piece of characterisation, Peter is a bully of a director, thinking nothing of being abusive in order to ‘coax’ a performance from Tony and his co-stars, the ambitious Joe (Sam Worthington, in an underwritten role) and keen actress/singer Blake (Chloe Bailey). “You are irredeemable,” Peter sneers at Tony, bringing up his poor treatment of his young daughter and now-dead wife, even the horrors of his childhood.

As Tony’s composure begins to slip, and he grows ever more erratic and aggressive, Lee believes her father to be sinking back into his old ways, and feels she has a responsibility to save him — an really interesting dynamic that never has a chance to take hold.

It soon becomes clear that Tony does not really need saving from himself, but from the demon he has unwittingly ushered in. At first shown in small, sometimes effectively creepy moments of weirdness, his behaviour quickly spirals until he is contorting, snorting and growling Latin in a manner that goes way beyond method. And by the time the ever-patient Lee teams up with the production’s consulting priest (David Hyde Pierce) to exorcise her father, the film has — much like Crowe’s increasingly unhinged performance – flung itself full-pelt into ho-hum horror hysteria.

Production companies: Miramax, Outerbanks Entertainment

International sales: Miramax https://www.miramax.com/contact/

Producers: Bill Block, Ben Fast, Kevin Williamson

Screenplay: M.A. Fortin, Joshua James Miller

Cinematography: Simon Duggan

Production design: Michael Perry 

Editing: Gardner Gould, Matthew Woolley

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

Main cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Simpkins, David Hyde Pierce, Sam Worthington, Adam Goldberg, Chloe Bailey