The concept of driving out demons from a captive mortal vessel has fueled some of the most chilling horror films of all time, yet it has inevitably also resulted in its fair share of uninspired, pseudo-religious ramblings. While no subgenre will produce consistently canon-worthy entries, horror films are exceptional in that even in their glaring imperfections, there’s usually some sort of transgressive motive to any given project—typically a societal critique or defense—meant to disturb, provoke or scintillate. Almost completely void of any shred of stimulating commentary is Alejandro Hidalgo’s The Exorcism of God, which strains in its attempt to unpack the legacy of Catholicism and missionaries in Mexico. Much of this might have to do with the majority-English dialogue, save for the central priest’s anglicized Spanish accent and a few ancillary characters meant to impart a sense of “local flavor.” Fortunately, the film does manage to set up some genuine jumpscares—personally, I’ll take a scream-inducing cheap scare over a sparse, barely-spooky “atmospheric” vibe any day of the week—but it is critically lacking in narrative finesse. This feels particularly shameful given the intensity of Mexico’s national obsession with exorcisms over the past decade, undoubtedly a product of an ongoing Vatican-backed culture war.
An American priest living in Mexico, Father Peter Williams (Will Beinbrink) has spent eighteen years silently repenting a carnal sin that overpowered him during the exorcism of one of his own parishioners. Though he resolved to never perform the rite thereafter, he finds himself unexpectedly called upon once again. This time, as opposed to visiting a crucifix-laden domicile, he’s welcomed into the dingy, cement-walled hostility of a women’s prison. At first unbeknownst to Peter, the indecent act he committed all those years ago continues to have serious consequences, manifesting in a young woman named Esperanza (María Gabriela de Faría), who is possessed by the same demon from the priest’s last exorcism. Realizing that his own past is beginning to haunt him and the quaint Mexican town he inhabits, Peter calls upon his London-based superior Father Michael Lewis (Joseph Marcell) to back him up. With the prison warden refusing to liberate any non-possessed prisoners for the sake of one who happens to be experiencing a demonic infestation, he strikes up a deal with the clergymen: Stay locked up all night in the veritable fortress to perform the sacrament, with the guards set to return in the wee hours of the morning. Inevitably, all hell literally breaks loose inside of the prison—and as the film’s title suggests, there’s an attempt to switch the tables on Peter, essentially excising the good out of him in an attempt to plant an unholy seed of evil.
During the 2010s, Mexico made multiple exorcism-related headlines, most notably that the rite was nationally on the rise and even the subject of a state-sanctioned spiritual cleanse. In 2015, the Catholic Church performed a country-wide exorcism—supposedly addressing the demonic origins of a years-long drug war and an increase in abortion access. Though the country garnered international headlines for this effort, it is indicative of a larger push by Pope Francis, who has led the Vatican since 2013, to expand exorcism practices. There’s a clear connection between what the Catholic Church deems “demonic” and what are in fact necessary advances in certain civil rights and liberties for marginalized groups. The church has sited “demonic” practices to include in pro-choice legislature, gender neutral children’s clothing and the acceptance of queer identities. Apparently, the pope doesn’t have more pressing concerns to address back in Italy. Whether a tool of an ongoing (and tiresome) “culture war” or a last-ditch effort for an entire country to purge its most diabolical human evils (though Mexican women tend to favor political protest), it’s clear that exorcisms are no longer overwhelmingly regarded as an archaic act only to be performed behind closed doors—shattering much of the bone-chilling mystique behind them.
Make no mistake, The Exorcism of God alludes to none of this, its foreign priest protagonists either finding the country totally romantic or a total cesspool (“I don’t know if I should spray holy water or bleach,” barks Michael upon entering the “third world country” prison). While this film is more than happy to exist as a mid-tier scream factory, Mexico has an impressive legacy of exorcism films that have pushed boundaries and been threatened with governmental censorship. Just about every transgressive angle utilized in The Exorcism of God has been thoroughly dissected in some of the country’s most famous outsider horror works. The repressed romantic urges of clergymen is examined with murderous gusto in Dos Monjes (Two Monks, 1934), while the spiritual rite of exorcism gets its own Mexican nunsploitation treatment in Satánico Pandemonium: La Sexorcista (Satanic Pandemoniam: The Sexorcist, 1975). Taking on a more dramatic and genuinely scary approach is Alucarda, which was also filmed largely in English similarly to The Exorcism of God. Chronicling a convent that becomes overtaken by a demonic entity, this 1977 film by Juan López Moctezuma endures as one of the most intriguing critiques of both Catholicism and the Mexican state in the country’s cinematic canon, having a well-regarded fan in Guillermo del Toro.
Despite the wealth of celluloid surveys concerning the country’s obsession with the intersection of Catholicism and the occult, The Exorcism of God forgoes this tradition, instead content to pander to the stylistically slick, thematically dull landscape of contemporary horror. Certainly chasing the commercial pull that generates The Conjuring series spin-offs, the elevated production value and tendency to lean on jumpscares feels solidly in-line with The Curse of La Llorona and The Nun. Fittingly, the film also shares a flimsy storyline and a schlock value that can’t even provoke with purpose. At the very least, The Exorcism of God knows how to set up a good (if cheap) scare—a demonic Jesus and possessed Virgin Mary statue among them—admittedly a welcome change of pace from the moody inertia which similarly plagues a slew of recent genre offerings. It sure as hell isn’t the politically urgent horror of Issa López’s femicide fable Tigers Are Not Afraid—and thankfully, no one is declaring that it needs to be. With the current onslaught of half-baked political horror commentary, sometimes it really is just enough for a film to simply focus on the scares for once, but be forewarned that The Exorcism of God’s subpar plot and politics definitely don’t do it any favors.
Director: Alejandro Hidalgo
Writers: Santiago Fernández Calvete, Alejandro Hidalgo
Stars: Will Beinbrink, María Gabriela de Faría, Joseph Marcell, Irán Castillo
Release Date: March 11, 2022 (Saban Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan