Sometimes, history reveals things that can't be explained. Dark vacancies that leave cavernous holes in what we know to be true. It is the subject of our most exciting adventures through alternate and unsolved mysteries. It's also a breeding ground for horror and ancient evil that tests our resolve and subjects us to demonic presences that only a select few, those shrouded in both history and faith, can confront.
The Pope's Exorcist, from Sony Pictures, follows the Vatican's chief Exorcist, the Vespa-riding Father Amorth (Russell Crowe) to Spain, where he joins a young priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) to save a young mother, Julia (Alex Essoe), and her children, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) and Amy (Laurel Marsden), who recently came into possession of an Abbey that holds secrets of the Catholic Church's dark history.
FANGORIA spoke to Aussie director Julius Avery (Overlord) about his new film, working with Russell Crowe, balancing the real-life and fictional exploits of Father Amorth, putting the spirit of pulp back into horror, and the status of his Van Helsing reboot.
I first became aware of Father Amorth's story in William Friedkin's documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth. Is that how you found your way to this project, or were you familiar with him beforehand?
I didn't really know anything about Father Amorth. When the script was sent to me, and it said The Pope's Exorcist, I actually thought it was just some sort of made-up thing. Hollywood likes to make up these things [laughs]. Then when I dug a little deeper, I realized this guy was real, and he was the chief exorcist at the Vatican for, I think, thirty-six years. The more I dug into his character, the more fascinating I found him. He was an iconoclast, a rogue within the church. It was documented that he thumbed his nose at the new church, and he was very outspoken. But what I found interesting, even though he was confronting these new ways in the church, he was always this super faithful servant of God, and his faith was unquestionable. I love that contradiction. In the script, when I read it, Father Amorth sort of reminded me of a Dirty Harry or Columbo, very much of a rogue within the institution.
Tell me a little bit about working with Russell Crowe. I thought his portrayal was a lot of fun, and it's really a role we don't get to see him in very often. What kind of insights did he bring to the character?
I've always wanted to work with Russell. I've always loved his raw magnetism. He's one of these actors that really draws you in. He's just this amazing storyteller, and he's always spinning a great yarn or getting his guitar out and singing. He just loves to tell stories. You really see him light up when he does it. There's a real warmth and generosity to him when you meet him, and I really wanted to tap into that because Russell is known for doing quite serious roles, but he's really funny and warm in this movie. I think people are gonna really love him as Father Amorth. He really threw himself into the role, and I think he really wanted to embody the spirit of the real guy.
While you're obviously dealing with a real guy, this is also a work of fiction that has to operate as a horror movie. What was the balancing process in terms of honoring the actual man and making a movie for audiences looking to be thrilled on a Friday night?
Father Amorth used a lot of humor when he was battling demons. He came at them with jokes. One of his sayings is, "The devil doesn't like jokes," which I thought was really interesting, and we sort of explore that in the movie. Russell just wanted to capture that spirit. It's not a serious biopic. I always saw it like what James Wan did with The Conjuring. He uses a real person as a kind of launching pad for something a lot more fantastical. In a way, I saw Father Amorth as this badass demon-hunting superhero, and Father Esquibel as his sidekick in training, set in a Da Vinci Code world. I love smashing the real with grounded and over-the-top, bonkers stuff. I've been playing with that for a while. I probably started with Overlord, and good or bad, I enjoy how you can subvert people's expectations. So, if you're coming to see a serious biopic, you'll probably walk away disappointed [laughs]. That was never my intention, and I think it's got more in common with Indiana Jones than it does with the original Exorcist, and that's intentional.
I love Overlord and I think that that film, along with this one, share certain thematic perspectives in terms of these organizations that people put their trust in, burying these monstrous secrets. There is this link between the religious fanaticism of the Inquisition and the Nazi ideology in terms of wanting to transform people and bend them to their will. Is that something you were conscious of?
Personally, what got me excited about the project was that, whether you believe in this sort of stuff or not, demons or whatever, I thought it was really interesting because it was a real job. And taking on evil in that sense you're talking about is something that I've always been drawn to in some way. I'm not sure how much I believe, but I do find it fascinating that science can only explain 98% of things, and there's that 2% we can't explain. I think I've sought to explore that in all my movies. And just to turn to my pulpy side for a second, I just love the idea of two apex predators battling it out. Russell is gonna hate me for saying this, but who doesn't want to see the Gladiator take on the Devil? [Laughs]
The pulpy side of things is what I enjoy most about your films, and I really felt that come to life in the third act of this one. Given Father Amorth's extensive writings and the superhero or Indiana Jones framework you mentioned, along with the buddy priest relationship between Amorth and Esquibel, is a series something you've thought of pursuing?
I think it's the start of something. There's a lot more to explore, and there's a lot more evil out there for them to take on. And you know, I am drawn to those kinds of buddy movies, especially the '80s buddy cop movies. I'm a big fan of, probably not a very well-known movie, called The Rookie, which has Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen in it. I love the chalk and cheese, fire and ice relationships, and the drama and comedy that can come out of it. So yeah, there are some elements to it that I think can live on.
Because this is FANGORIA, I'll be condemned if I don't ask, but a few years ago, you were attached to a Van Helsing reboot with James Wan. Is that something you're still pursuing?
I mentioned James Wan before, and I'm a huge fan of his. I've been wanting to work with him for a while. He's a fellow Aussie, and yeah, we're teamed up on a Van Helsing movie together, which I'm currently writing and intend to direct myself with James producing. But yeah, that's still in motion. I can't tell you much more than that, but I'm very, very excited about it!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Pope's Exorcist is in theaters April 13th, 2023.