Directed by Mikael Håfström
Screenplay by Michael Petroni
Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas Trevant
Colin O’Donoghue as Michael Kovak
Alice Braga as Angeline
Ciarán Hinds as Father Xavier
Toby Jones as Father Matthew
Running time: 112 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images, and language including sexual references.
While not a failure of biblical proportions, ‘The Rite’ is certainly no success.
Almost forty years ago, The Exorcist terrified moviegoers around the globe, and rightly so. That movie was an unprecedented scare-fest imbued with otherworldly sound effects, blasphemous grotesquery, and Mercedes McCambridge’s utterly disturbing shrieks and grunts. Since then filmmakers have struggled to hit that groove again (witness the many sequels and prequels) and failed spectacularly. 2011’s first horror flick, The Rite, tells a story that’s dreadfully similar to that of the faithless priest Damien Karras and his elderly mentor Father Merrin. The problem is the newer film only manages to bleat feebly where Friedkin’s shocker roared loudly enough to throw your hair back.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), a dark and brooding young mortician, helps his father (horror mainstay Rutger Hauer) with the family business. Michael lost his faith at a young age when his mother passed away (our protagonist suppresses some mommy issues, much like that priest of yore Damien Karras). He wants more than his small-town life so he joins the seminary, despite having no particular love for God. When he tries to quit the seminary due to aforementioned lack of faith, Father Matthew (Toby Jones, who is better than the tiny role he plays) warns Michael he’ll forfeit his scholarship and take on a hundred grand in student loans. Father Matthew tells Michael he ought to go to Rome and pursue a course on exorcism; perhaps that would help restore his belief. This is all rather implausible, but we’ll let that slide for the moment.
Michael finds himself in Italy, where he meets the slightly nutty Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), who resides in a rundown, stray-cat-infested old manse outside Florence. Father Lucas strives to extract a demon from a pregnant sixteen-year-old and when he fails, finds himself thrown into doubt then inexplicably possessed. For some inane reason there’s only one priest in Rome who can perform an exorcism and he happens to be out of town for the weekend, so of course Michael has to do the dirty work himself. Journalist Angeline (Alice Braga, who played the entirely similar and equally unnecessary role of Encouraging Believer in 2007’s I Am Legend) plays witness to the ceremony.
The Rite is remarkably dull where its most obvious predecessor, The Exorcist, was sharp as a switchblade. The movie was “inspired by true events” and based on a book by Matt Baglia. Unfortunately either Baglia’s material left little wiggle room or screenwriter Michael Petroni is inept with dialogue. Any horror aficionado will tell you that a little humor is necessary to offset the inherent discomfort of a scary movie, or perhaps to bolster it—and every attempt at humor in The Rite is remarkably uncomfortable (“Speak of the devil” is a particularly absurd pun that falls totally flat). The movie is about an American in Rome: it’s rife with unrealized opportunities for perceptions of displacement and unease that serve horror film well. It’s set almost entirely within and around gorgeous architecture but you’d hardly know it; cinematographer Ben Davis missed a lot of truly golden opportunities for beautiful shots. Editor David Rosenbloom doesn’t seem to have the magic touch with horror, and what’s supposed to be scary ends up being laughable. The Rite does feature some jarring imagery: there is graphic postmortem body preparation familiar to those of us who watched “Six Feet Under,” as well as a few broken and twisted corpses. The exorcism course, of which we see remarkably little, conveniently educates the audience in the monstrous physical manifestations of possession (none of which we see in the film’s actual exorcisms).
It’s hard to believe a demon would use language appropriate for a PG-13 audience, and that contributes to a feeling of falseness in the movie’s “climactic” scene. Sir Hopkins, whose performance the studio is touting in trailers as his “best since Silence of the Lambs,” reveals a very few thrilling glimpses of what made Doctor Lecter so enthralling. It’s no surprise a demon would exhibit Lecter’s trademarks; Hopkins whips out a cynical wit, manifests a mischievous glint in his weathered eyes, and displays a mocking cynicism that work well in this context. When Hopkins played Lecter, there were moments in which you felt extraordinarily unsettled, as though you were watching a lion swish its tail menacingly just before it rips apart an antelope. There are the barest hints of this in The Rite, but Hopkins seems to have lost some of his touch. Finally, a note to studios: computer generated imagery very, very rarely trumps makeup. What made Regan MacNeil’s physical transformation in The Exorcist so horrifying to behold was Linda Blair’s adorable visage distorted with yellow contacts, running sores, and bulging chartreuse skin manufactured in latex and green paint. The CGI equivalent is inferior.
Crises of faith and the restoration of belief have a special place in film history and in horror film in particular, and Hollywood has a blatant fascination with Catholicism and its trappings. Exorcism in particular has enjoyed a healthy popularity in film since The Exorcist—although few movies have made such an impact as that first one. Last year’s Eli Roth-produced indie The Last Exorcism is a spooky little flick about a man whose faith is restored by the devil, and you’re better off watching that than paying to see The Rite. Check out The Exorcist III, which is the only palatable sequel (avoid The Exorcist II at all costs). At the very least, wait until The Rite hits your home theater—you’re not missing much.