We know the typical possession movie song and dance. A priest is going through a crisis of faith. He gets a call from the Catholic Church about a possession. He begrudgingly packs up the holy water and Bible and hops on a plane. After enduring an intense battle with a demon, he realizes his faith in God (unless the demon gets him first, which does happen). It all ends in a nice little package with the Devil defeated and the evil contained. The Exorcist did it first, and best, so how can the subgenre grow? Well, Emilio Portes’ Belzebuth offers a breath of fresh air to the stale possession film, weaving a new, and dark, narrative about the neverending battle between good and evil.
Belzebuth begins in Mexico with the birth of a little boy to police officer Emmanuel (Joaquín Cosio) and his wife, Marina. The two parents gush and coo over their new baby, carefully examining each of his fingers and toes. Emmanuel gets unexpectedly called into work, but promises his wife he’ll be right back. Little does he know that this is the last time he’ll see his son. As his son is laid down in the nursery, a new nurse comes in for shift change. But something doesn’t seem right as her eyes dart around the nursery and she seems extremely on edge. Suddenly, she begins massacring the nursery and kills every baby, including Emmanuel’s. It is an extremely violent way to start off such a film, but it sets Belzebuth’s tone perfectly. This isn’t going to be a cookie-cutter film that hides violence. Rather, it is going to kill as many children as possible to show what true evil can look like.
Five years after the death of his son, Emmanuel is called in again to investigate another massacre, this time started by a child in an elementary school. These child massacres are occurring with alarming frequency and Emmanuel can’t figure out how or why. Until the Catholic Church shows up. Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington) is a priest who investigates the paranormal and demonic, which he believes is the cause for all of these deaths, but he doesn’t understand why either. All he has are some EVPs and strange handprints on the ceiling. It is not until they meet a tattooed Vasilio Canetti (played by Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell) that they get the final piece of this demonic puzzle, pun fully intended.
Canetti, a disgraced ex-priest, explains that the Messiah, or the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, has been born in Mexico and the Devil is trying to kill him. This child is the only thing standing in evil’s way, so he must be eliminated through whatever violent way possible. Yes, it does sound incredibly cheesy, and it is, but when you’re dealing with the Catholic Church, what else can you expect? This strange trio must then come together to save the Messiah, who is just four years old, and protect the world from evil.
Belzebuth is a hell of a scary movie, especially when a giant porcelain crucified Jesus Christ comes to life to taunt and tempt Emmanuel. This is perhaps the film’s turning point when we truly enter the realm of the demonic and realize that this is 100% a possession movie that isn’t just about a singular possession. Instead, it a film about a much bigger battle between good and evil. Yes, there is one very intense and violent possession of Emmanuel, but it is not the film’s centerpiece; rather it is a side effect of an attempt to save the world.
Needless to say there is a lot happening in Belzebuth, but it’s written so well that none of its story feels overwhelming. Everything weaves together to create a unique and familiar yet strange narrative that never goes the way you’d expect it. It also serves as an important cultural artifact as the film is set in Mexico near the border, a huge topic of discussion in American politics. The border in Belzebuth signifies salvation for the Messiah, an escape from the demonic, which creates a rather obvious yet important metaphor about what this man-made barrier can mean for those trying to cross it. Again, Belzebuth doesn’t operate in subtlety, but that’s what helps it stand out from previous canon of possession films.