While the critic-proof Super Mario Bros. Movie continues to dominate theaters this Spring and give Illumination the funds to subject us all to more Minions content for decades to come, two not-so-family-friendly horror flicks managed to sneak onto big screens for a different crowd. Hopefully no children accidentally found themselves in the wrong theater watching either one of these - Renfield starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage and The Pope’s Exorcist starring Russell Crowe as, well, the pope’s exorcist.
There are some surprising similarities to be found between what are otherwise two very different takes on R-rated supernatural horror. The more comedic Renfield comes from Chris McKay, who directed The Lego Batman Movie as well the Chris Pratt sci-fi action flick The Tomorrow War, while The Pope’s Exorcist is directed by Julius Avery, the Australian filmmaker behind the intense WWII zombie movie Overlord and Sylvester Stallone’s superhero drama Samaritan. One of these bombed while the other flourished after duking it out in theaters for horror audiences over the same opening weekend, and perhaps surprisingly, Russell Crowe came out on top.
We’re going to dive into Renfield and The Pope’s Exorcist to see what works and what doesn’t before both films get swallowed up by Evil Dead Rise later this week. Check out the reviews and trailers below and let us know which one you prefer or if either horror fix floats your boat.
Originally pitched by The Walking Dead and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman, Renfield seems like an easy enough win on the surface. Universal has slowly and clumsily been trying to reboot their classic monster characters for years, and their latest attempt at resurrecting Dracula brings together plenty of talent. Nicolas Cage plays the legendary vampire in an inspired casting choice while the film’s focus is on the Count’s assistant and familiar Robert Montague Renfield, played by Nicholas Hoult.
Awkwafina also stars in the film as Officer Rebecca Quincy, the only good-hearted cop in town who helps inspire Renfield to try and leave his toxic and undead relationship. Set in modern day New Orleans, the film follows Renfield after nearly a century of helping his master, Count Dracula, kill enemies and innocents alike. He’s grown tired of it all and yearns for a life where he’s not bound to a manipulative bloodsucker. With emotional support from a self-help group that focuses on co-dependent relationships, Renfield finds the courage to defy Dracula and help Rebecca rid the city of its local crime family and all of the corrupt cops on their payroll.
Director Chris McKay has proven to have an eye for action in both animated and live-action formats and it's here that Renfield shines the most. Hoult swallows a variety of bugs and gets a supernatural high, which allows him to fight with extreme strength that includes but is not limited to tearing off limbs and exploding people’s heads. What Dracula is capable of is even worse. Think of Renfield as an expensive splatter film, filled to the brim with intentionally over-the-top blood and guts and creatively painful ways for nameless goons to die.
The movie is downright giddy about ripping people apart onscreen, at times making it all the more obvious how much the comedy side struggles to keep up. There are a few chuckle-worthy moments but for the most part, Renfield’s jokes feel far too safe and obvious. Rarely do they ever come close to matching the exaggerated silliness of the film’s violence, which is a real miss considering the more than capable cast. Why not let these actors really cut loose?
The horror-enhanced action is great but for the most part, Renfield falls flat. It’s simply not funny enough and it’s hard to say what went wrong. The screenplay comes from Ryan Ridley, best known for his work on Community and Rick and Morty. Ridley’s written several beloved episodes of those narrative-defying, fourth-wall smashing series, which makes it all the more disappointing that Renfield ends up feeling so generic by comparison.
There are certainly some moments that horror and Nic Cage fans alike will find memorable, but don’t expect any continued adventures with these versions of the characters anytime soon. Renfield didn’t even reach $8 million this past opening weekend against a $65 million budget, so Universal will likely be forced to head back to the drawing board with Count Dracula once again. Maybe Renfield can find a second life on streaming.
‘The Pope’s Exorcist’
Meanwhile, The Pope’s Exorcist has become a bit of a surprise hit, already raking in over $36 million on a more modest $18 million budget in a single weekend. Russell Crowe stars in the film as Father Gabriel Amorth, a real-life Catholic priest who acted as the official exorcist of the Diocese of Rome and has been called the “James Bond of exorcists”. The story is based on his memoirs, following Amorth as he deals with the case of a demonically possessed boy in Spain named Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney).
That smaller budget doesn’t hold the film back at all and after countless PG-13 possession movies, it’s nice to see one that actually embraces its chance to go big with its scares (and language) thanks to an R-rating. Unfortunately, despite its fascinating central character and a charming Russell Crowe performance to back it up, The Pope’s Exorcist is far too reminiscent of the tired and cliched genre it's playing in to stand out in an exciting enough way. Not that that’ll stop an eventual sequel from happening though, I’m sure.
Sent directly by the Pope (Franco Nero) himself, Amorth arrives on the scene in Spain where Henry’s family is in desperate need of help. Along with his mother (Alex Essoe) and older sister Amy (Laurel Marsden), the young boy has just moved from America, and it doesn’t take long at all until a demon makes itself at home inside of him. Previously left mute after the traumatic death of his father, Henry now speaks blasphemous obscenities in a startlingly menacing voice (provided by Ralph Ineson), terrifying his family as well as their local priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto).
From its gross-out gore to Crowe’s playfully confident lead performance, there’s plenty to enjoy in the otherwise generic The Pope’s Exorcist. Like Renfield, the movie sometimes suffers from a mismatched tone. There are some intentionally (and some unintentionally) goofy moments, and it almost makes you wish the whole thing leaned a bit more in that direction. It plays things far too straight most of the time, further amplifying just how formulaic Amorth’s battle against Satanic demons ends up feeling by its end.
Why is it in these kinds of movies that even supernatural demons straight from the throne of Hell only ever manage to just turn off some lights, twist some body parts around, and talk in a spooky voice? The Pope’s Exorcist gets away with some extreme horror imagery by placing almost all of it behind dreams and visions; things hardly feel dangerous on an actual physical level even with the story’s attempts to widen in scope by its third act. Thankfully, the psychological side of things manage to work well enough. You won’t really care about Henry or his family, but the inner struggles and past sins that the central demon forces both Amorth and Esquibel to confront are coherent enough material to give the film a solid enough foothold.
If there’s a chance for more scenes of Crowe in this particular costume going around on his little scooter, I’ll definitely take another chapter or two in the adventures of Father Amorth. Surely we can come up with something that more directly involves Nero’s scene-stealing Pope as well. It’s interesting how Renfield and The Pope’s Exorcist both feel like they play things just a bit too safely instead of swinging for the fences with their fun premises. Going further might’ve made either one truly great.
‘Renfield’ and ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ are playing in theaters.