Since the big success of “The Exorcist” (1973), there have been lots of horror movies about exorcism, but, like those zombie movies, many of them were not particularly scary to me. Although “The Exorcist” may be not that shocking any more in these days, it still works as a well-made horror movie equipped with its own strong drama and evocative mood to support its memorable moments of shock and awe, and that is why it has retained its place way above many cheap imitators which merely tried to scare us with worn-out materials.
While not as scary as “The Exorcist”, South Korean film “The Priests” will not disappoint its target audiences because it has nearly everything its genre requires. It has 1) two priest characters with each own fear and guilt to face, 2) the menacing presence of a super-duper demonic force, 3) the time-honored details of Catholic exorcism ritual we have seen from many of its senior occult films, and 4) a possessed girl who can do lots of things including vomiting blood instead of that green sticky fluid ejaculated from Linda Blair’s mouth in “The Exorcist”.
After a couple of prologue sequences, the movie tells its story mainly through Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won), a young priest who has been studying at his Catholic seminary for 7 years. Although he is not exactly a model student to say the least, he is personally chosen by the dean as a suitable assistant for Father Kim (Kim Yoon-seok), who is planning another exorcism ritual on a girl he has known for a long time.
Because Father Kim previously failed in the first attempt with a bad result, his superiors are reluctant to give him a permission for another exorcism. He firmly believes this is the only way to help that girl, but his superiors worry about how it will seriously damage the public image of their church if anything goes quite wrong as before. They believe in God, so that means they must believe in the existence of devils, but then any public exposure of exorcism ritual will make them look like living fossils against the age of reason and science.
Being instructed to monitor Father Kim just in case, Deacon Choi is naturally skeptical about exorcism, but he soon begins to have bad feelings about his task. When he visits a friar who assisted Father Kim during the first attempt of exorcism, the friar is not so willing to talk about what he experienced with Father Kim. As he gets to know more about the girl’s case, Deacon Choi comes to realize that he may have to handle far more than he thought at first – and he also starts to feel the aura of something unwholesome around him.
While providing a fair share of spooky scenes to unnerve the audiences, the movie shows some sense of humor, and I was especially amused by a brief scene involved with a cute little pig, which is unfortunately going to be used as the container for an evil spirit to be purged away. The movie also provides some space for local shamanism, so we get another disturbing moment when a shaman ritual is disastrously failed not long after our priests’ arrival. I guess that explains why the Roman Catholic Church is still at the top of expertise in case of chasing away evil spirits in movies. Besides, they look pretty cool with all those rituals and items, don’t they?
As entering its third act, the movie pushes all the usual buttons to make its exorcism ritual sequence look sinister and terrifying. Besides Latin, Korean and Chinese are also spoken thanks to our multilingual demon who is so eager to wreak havoc on Asia besides its current host, and we are also served with those familiar body changes including white/black eyeballs, bleeding gums, serious skin problems, and stinking body odor (the movie has a small fun detail on how priests deal with the last thing). As the soundtrack is drenched in an utmost serious religious mood, cats, crows, rats, and insects come handy for demonstrating the threatening power of evil, and there is even an action sequence around the finale, which may take you back to that desperate drive to the church in “The Omen” (1976).
While the movie is overblown at times, it is anchored by its two lead actors’ star presence. Kim Yoon-seok, who has always been an engaging actor to watch, fills his character with gravitas and authority, and Kang Dong-won, who previously appeared with Kim in “Woochi” (2009), is also well-cast as a young man who must overcome the fear and guilt originated from his old trauma in the past. Kim and Kang play well against each other on the screen, and the movie frequently feels like a buddy film as Father Kim teaches new things to his potential pupil.
The other characters surrounding them are played by a number of dependable performers including Son Jong-hak, Lee Ho-jae, and Kim Ee-seong. Park So-dam, who previous gave a notable supporting performance in “The Silenced” (2015), did another nice job here, and she surely goes all the way as her possessed character terrifies or torments Father Kim and Deacon Choi in various ways.
“The Priests” is the first feature film by the director/writer Jang Jae-hyeon, and he made a slick horror product with creepy things to enjoy. I do not believe much in those spiritual things, and I think exorcism is merely an old-fashioned shock therapy for the mentally disturbed, but I like the film as an entertainment anyway while appreciating its competent handling of routine genre elements. It does not bring anything particularly new to its genre, but it does things mostly right.