In the past I wondered whether they were running out of titles for movies that take place on submarines. Now I’m wondering whether they’re running out of titles for exorcism movies. This latest one is called The Rite, and it lives down to that uninspired title in every possible way.
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) is a seminary student from Chicago who’s having second thoughts about taking his final vows for the priesthood as he prepares to graduate. Anxious to keep him in the profession, a mentor assigns him to take a course at the Vatican designed to teach the clergy about the rites of exorcism. Michael’s skepticism about Satan and his minions gets him referred to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a loose-cannon Welsh priest who lives in Rome and drives evil spirits out of the locals. The encounter is supposed to give Michael the proof he’s looking for, but he finds Father Lucas to be a cranky and easily distractible old man. Indeed, his cell phone goes off while he’s busy conducting an exorcism on a pregnant teenager (Marta Gastini). With the girl writhing on the floor and cursing at him in languages she doesn’t know, the priest takes the call. We never find out who was on the other end. Was it God?
The film was “suggested by” a book of reportage by Matt Baglio, who attended some actual classes at the Vatican on battling demons. Mikael Håfström, the talented Swedish director who made an effective big-budget horror flick called 1408 a few years ago, tried to spruce up a balky script that includes a typically troubled childhood for Michael with his icy funeral home director dad (Rutger Hauer). Håfström inserted aural hallucinations on the soundtrack and made the most of his Roman locations, even though most of the film was actually shot in Budapest.
Still, this movie fails on just about every level. The movie makes an obligatory reference to The Exorcist, but forget that. It doesn’t stand up to the vérité stylings of The Last Exorcist or the realism of Hans-Christian Schmid’s 2006 German exorcism film Requiem. It doesn’t work as a debate between skepticism and faith, it doesn’t work as a character study, and it doesn’t work as an X-Files-style procedural. Nor does it work as a straight-up horror flick, unless you’re spooked by the appearance of a mule with demonic red eyes. I mean, seriously.
There’s one way it does work, though. It’s a great excuse for Hopkins to chew the scenery like it’s made out of apple-smoked bacon. Sometimes he’s funny, as in the early scenes portraying the cleric as an avuncular oldster with an alarmingly casual attitude toward battling Satan. Late in the film, though, the exorcist winds up in need of some exorcism himself, and Hopkins’ portrayal of demonic possession topples into comic self-parody. He exaggerates his Welsh accent and uses the phrase, “Awesome, dude!” Poor O’Donoghue (a newcomer who’s done most of his acting on Irish TV) is no match for any of this. So far this month I’ve seen a bunch of bad Hollywood movies that managed to be bad in interesting ways, but The Rite is just crap.