A Metatextual Riff You’ve Seen Before

A Metatextual Riff You’ve Seen Before

Horror

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In 2011, The Rite was released. In 2012, The Possession was released. In 2021, The Unholy was released. I barely remember them. Beyond their leads and a general understanding of their respective narratives, their exorcisms and possessions barely made an impact on me. They came, they possessed, they disappeared. Joshua John Miller’s (writer, The Final Girls) The Exorcism will be in decent company, then. Now in theaters, Miller’s metatextual twist on exorcism movies is perhaps a bit too beholden to intertextuality, dipping into the same pool of twisted flesh and deep voices audiences have seen a hundred times before. The movie is serviceable enough, but months from now, you might forget you’ve even seen it.

The general framework for The Exorcism is, at least, a solid one. Russell Crowe, no longer The Pope’s Exorcist (unironically one of the better releases the subgenre has seen as of late), plays Anthony Miller, a bereaved actor grappling with sobriety who takes on a starring role in the movie-within-a-movie’s exorcism flick. Tentatively titled The Georgetown Project, the meta-production is unequivocally a riff on The Exorcist—the only thing it’s missing is Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells.”

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Miller’s daughter, Leigh (Ryan Simpkins), is home (temporarily expelled) from school and is on hand to supervise his return to filmmaking and ensure his past battles with addiction and substance abuse remain under control. The conceit is an earnest attempt to do something new, though unlike Joshua John Miller’s co-writing credit on The Final Girls, The Exorcism’s meta-approach is just set dressing. Where The Final Girls probed an earnest legacy of grief within the framework of 1980s slasher movies, The Exorcism’s play at metatextuality merely conceals the convention at its core.

Every hallmark is there. The slow descent into madness. The contorted limbs and shattered lights. The final showdown with just a bible and a verse standing between a demon and its will. Miller’s addiction broadly gestures toward Catholic guilt, though the more poignant threads feel incomplete at best, and misguided at worst. An entire subplot about sexual abuse Miller suffered in the church feels disconnected from the possession at play, rendering it an exploitative angle to add thematic heft The Exorcism doesn’t earn.

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Billed as Scream meets The Exorcist, The Exorcism needed something to say about the broader state of faith-based horror—and, at its core, that’s what exorcism movies fundamentally are—though it too regularly concedes to greatest hits showcase of the subgenres best and worst moments. Crowe and Simpkins, to their credit, are acting through the familiarity, elevating the material with a poignant familial interplay that, while out of place, remains affecting by the dint of their performances’ strengths.

The jump scares work, and for all the familiarity, the production angle adds texture to otherwise mundane material. Yet, by the time Crowe’s Anthony is bending over backward, hurling all manner of insults at the cast and crew, The Exorcism feels like not just one, but two movies I’ve seen a hundred times before. Stellar craftsmanship might possess you, though it won’t take an exorcism to shake this one free. In due time, that will probably happen anyway.

Summary

The Exorcism’s metatextual spin on possession yarns eschews subversion for familiarity.

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