It’s hard to do something unique with an exorcism movie. There’s definitely a feeling within the film buff community that the horror sub-genre has not only seen better days but is in fact worn thin. After all how many times can one watch a holy man work his magic on a possessed soul? The Exorcist was a looong time ago and it takes a lot more than spinning heads devilish make-up and erratic body movements to give contemporary audiences the heebie-jeebies. Nevertheless Warner Bros. seemed to believe that moviegoers would fancy another take on the religious practice in Mikael Hafstrom’s The Rite but the studio was wrong.
Sure the film features a batty performance from Sir Anthony Hopkins but its story is about as standard and predictable as can be. Inspired by true events the supernatural thriller follows a seminary student (played by the uninspired Colin O’Donoghue) who is sent to study exorcism at the Vatican in spite of his skepticism about the controversial practice and his own waning faith. But after witnessing the terrifying phenomenon first hand he begins to questions everything he believes.
As stated Hafstrom offers nothing original in his film. There’s a bit of tension between Hopkins’ Father Lucas and O’Donoghue’s Michael Kovak but only as much as the Oscar-winning thespian will allow. He chews the scenery through most of the movie and believe it or not that’s the most interesting part of the picture. The rest is all about Kovak’s backstory (which somehow ties into the convoluted plot) and a slow-burn build-up to a reveal that you can see a mile away. In between you’ll find all the trappings of an exorcist movie: haunting visions a girl in dire need of biblical intervention a dark and moody atmosphere and gothic but beautiful production design.
What you won’t find anywhere in this release is worthwhile bonus content. I’m all about production; the ideal Blu-ray (for me at least) would always contain an in-depth making-of featurette. There’s just no reason why in this day and age studios can’t have a team on the set of any picture documenting the shoot. Behind the scenes footage and interviews offer insight into creative decisions and story itself which often proves more informative and interesting than the feature. The Rite contains nothing of the sort and instead uses its disc space to boast an alternate ending a few cut scenes and a profile of Father Gary Thomas whose life story inspired the film and the novel from which it’s based (“The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist” by Matt Baglio). In addition you can take a virtual tour of the actual Exorcism Academy (I sense a CW show in the making!) but after wasting two hours on the feature I can’t promise you’ll want to.
The supernatural thriller The Rite is a different kind of literary adaptation a film not “based on” or even “inspired by” a written work but rather “suggested by” one. The degree to which this fictional film adheres factually to its source material Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist is anybody’s guess. Fans of The Exorcist might argue that it’s more strongly “suggested by” William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic than anything else.
Erstwhile unknown Colin O’Donoghue in his first feature role plays Michael a seminary student sent to Rome to learn the intricacies of demonic possession. A pronounced skeptic who isn’t even sure he believes in god much less the Catholic doctrine of exorcism Michael is inclined toward the more humanistic view of the “possessed” as simply disturbed or schizophrenic individuals. What they really need he insists is not a priest but a good psychiatrist. (That belief certainly won't endear him to the Church of Scientology.)
To rid him of such malignant pragmatism Michael’s headmaster (Ciaran Hinds) ships him off to serve an apprenticeship under Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) a Welsh Jesuit (shorthand for “eccentric”) and practicing exorcist. Having been around the theological block a few times Lucas reacts to Michael’s unbelief with wry nonchalance (a Hopkins specialty and the film’s most appealing trait); he knows that Satan’s arguments will prove far more convincing than any he might offer.
And Satan gets to work forthwith first using a pregnant Italian girl as his vessel then incorporating other representatives of the animal kingdom tormenting Michael with horned frogs and red-eyed demon mules. At first exhibiting admirable restraint director Mikael Hafstrom eventually employs just about every weapon in his terror arsenal bombarding Michael with harrowing visions and flashbacks (he grew up in a funeral home with an undertaker father played by Rutger Hauer who had a habit of bringing his work home with him) which offer ample opportunities for cheap scares. His trump card of course is Hopkins whose character eventually becomes possessed himself thus allowing The Rite to fulfill the Lucas/Lucifer conceit we all knew was coming.
The Rite varies wildly in tone with Hafstrom seemingly unable to decide if his film is to be a moody serious-minded psychological thriller or some campy outlandish horror-comedy. By the time Father Lucas becomes possessed and the reenactment of the first great celestial battle begins the film gives itself wholly over to the latter. As channeled by Hopkins the devil comes off as a less eloquent more vulgar version of Hannibal Lecter taunting Michael with naughty words and voraciously devouring scenery. The Dark Lord as a dirty old man is something of a novel concept I suppose. Scary? Maybe a little. Creepy? Oh hell yes.