The bad thing about The Exorcist is that it has been so influential that we’re coming up on 40 years since its release and still we’re getting a handful of cheap knockoffs released in theaters every year. From The Devil Inside, to The Rite, to The Last Exorcism, to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, demonic possession movie after demonic possession movie is made with the same plot, the same characters, and the same tone. And every time you watch the whole thing play out, it manages to hit with slightly less impact than it did the time before.
It was with great enthusiasm, then, that I watched J.T. Petty’s (The Burrowers) latest film, Hellbenders, which is finally, finally an exorcism movie that’s nothing like all of the other exorcism movies that have come before. There are no creepy little girls and wise but weary priests here. Instead, Hellbenders populates itself with foul-mouthed, hard-partying priests who seem to be more comfortable sinning than they do going to Sunday mass. You see, the conceit is this: in order for a priest who deals in exorcism to be ready to take a demon into his body and escort it to hell — by offing himself — he must always have enough sin wracked up to actually be worthy of going to the place. So, the merry band of miscreants that this film follows have checklists to make sure that they’re on top of their sinning. They curse, they steal, they blaspheme, they engage in disgustingly deviant sexual acts, and they’re basically like no other group of holy men (and woman) you’ve ever seen. Which is good news for the R-rated comedy of the film but bad news for the unleashed ancient evil that they go up against.
From facing down an impending Apocalypse to dealing with threats of having their whole organization shut down by a squeamish church, the raucous protagonists of Hellbenders are always creating enough conflict to make for an engaging story. But mostly this is a movie that’s about providing exploitation shocks and big laughs, so its success is largely dependent on whether it manages to stay fun throughout. Thankfully, it has enough jokes that land and dismemberments that disgust for this to be the case. Hellbenders is packed from front to back with terribly offensive humor, but more than that, its jokes aren’t just offensive, they’re actually funny too. Whether the credit for that goes to the writers or the performers is probably arguable, but the fact that it all works is less so.
Accentuating the laughs is a handful of horror movie chills that mostly come from moments of over the top gore but are also sometimes the results of effectively creepifying mood-building. The buzz coming out of this film’s initial screenings seemed intent on comparing it to Ghostbusters, and it’s not hard to see where that comes from. The film features a crew of guys who you would normally think of as being constrictively conservative cracking wise, and their main concern seems to be corralling otherworldly apparitions, but it should be noted that comparisons to the Ivan Reitman classic are largely erroneous. While Hellbenders is certainly a good time, and it’s certainly genre-based, it’s a far more fringe, cult-concerned film than Ghostbusters. That was the sort of movie you couldn’t wait to show your kids, once they got old enough; this is the sort of movie you can’t wait to show your college buddies the next time you’re all getting drunk together.
A review of Hellbenders would be incomplete without a mention of its performances. Or at least a mention of how great Clancy Brown is in it. Brown is something of a cult hero at this point, and Hellbenders represents maybe the best chance he’s had to show off what a spectacular range he’s working with as an actor. He got the chance to do more serious and grounded dramatic work this festival thanks to his role in Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price, but Hellbenders is his showcase. In this movie he’s playing a surlier, more dangerous version of Jeff Bridges’ stoner character, and he’s absolutely captivating every second he’s on the screen. It’s kind of hard not to laundry-list the memorable quotes his character spits over the course of the film, and that’s largely in thanks to Petty’s script, but it also has to be partly credited to how charming Brown is as a presence. I’ll just do one and let you experience the rest for yourself: “Get your sweet ass out of my cock range,” is something I’m going to be awkwardly dropping into conversations from now on.
Hellbenders isn’t perfect, though. Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury) does a great job as the film’s out-of-control fat guy, but he doesn’t get nearly as much of its focus as he deserves. He even disappears from the film’s climax so thoroughly that they seemed to feel the need to comment on it when everything is wrapping up. Andre Royo (The Wire’s Bubbles) is predictably great as The Hellbound Saints of Brooklyn’s resident straight arrow, Stephen, but he’s also relegated to the background instead of getting any substantial focus. It would have been nice if every member of the ensemble got at least one issue to struggle with and one moment of character focus, as the characters in something like The Avengers do, but unfortunately Hellbenders just doesn’t seem to have enough time for everybody.
That’s because a lot of the film’s focus gets pointed at a love triangle involving Clifton Collins Jr.’s character, his sensible wife, and his fellow nihilistic member of the clergy, Elizabeth (Robyn Rikoon). This relationship stuff is the least interesting and most generic aspect of the film, and it gets an unfortunate amount of the filmmaker’s focus, probably out of an attempt to lend the film some dramatic weight. Unfortunately, Hellbenders is already funny enough that it doesn’t need dramatic weight, and the relationship stuff still feels ancillary enough that it doesn’t end up providing much anyway. Sure, it’s always better to see a movie try to be more character-focused and fail rather than just be content to be disposable, but watching half-baked drama take time away from the great comedy that actors like Fogler, Royo, and the hilarious Macon Blair were creating gets to be frustrating, and it makes the movie drag in a place or two.
The Upside: Finally, Hellbenders ends the reign of generic exorcism movies by injecting some raunchy jokes and sickening gore into its proceedings. No movie with a sex rabbit could be bad, could it?
The Downside: Though it’s a lot of fun, Hellbenders might have gone too big in scope with its world-ending plot. It sometimes promises levels of destruction that it’s not at all budgeted to produce. Probably it would have been fine just being about a battle against a demon, not the ultimate demon.
On the Side: Hellbenders is presented in 3D, and unlike fellow Midnight Madness entry Dredd 3D, this one isn’t at all worth watching in the format. There’s no extra depth of focus and no crazy stuff popping out at you, so you’ll hardly be able to tell you’re watching 3D at all.