Horror films are critical failures more often than not because they end up being laughably predictable. Anything can be scary with the right soundtrack and things popping up suddenly. The Rite certainly employs those creepy cliches, but it has a few other things on its side that made me think it might be the kind of horror film I couldn’t laugh through–mainly, religion and Anthony Hopkins.
The film starts out with a quote from Pope John Paul II, and then uses that based on real events line that makes everyone a little more nervous. The based on real events thing can also make a horror film kind of humorous, but when you’re dealing with religion and demons, it seems best not to tempt anything. Darkened, angled close-ups of crucifixes and stained glass windows can actually be very creepy, and this movie is full of them.
It starts off very slow, giving ample backstory for priest-in-training Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), who is actually a big doubter of the whole religion thing. His mother died young, and his father raised him a mortician, so his childhood was one big bummer. He escaped it into the priesthood.
In order to give God one last try before jumping the seminary ship, Michael goes to the Vatican to take a month-long course on exorcism and finds himself studying under an unconventional exorcist, Father Lucas–cue, Anthony Hopkins.
This Rome is rainy and, as Father Lucas says, “cat-infested,” recalling almost nothing from the Rome of Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love. Hopkins is actually relatively normal when we first see him. His initial presence on screen is a little frightening because, hey, he might eat someone’s face off, but once I realized he’s a friendly old man with a sense of humor I started to calm down. He uses a brisker voice than his drawn-out tone from Silence of the Lambs and doesn’t pull out the creepy until later.
We follow Father Lucas and Michael–who continues to rain on the exorcism parade by suggesting the possessed just need a good shrink–between a few victims of the devil, and The Rite treats us to contorting bodies and funny demon voices that are a staple of the exorcist film. We’ve become somewhat desensitized to the gruesome effects, but the movie knows what it’s doing and so far nothing is laughable.
Where this movie takes an unfortunate turn is in the middle when Michael hallucinates and hears voices–those are the tricks that aren’t scary and bring away from the movie. This is O’Donoghue’s first feature film, and it wasn’t exactly wise to put him up against a veteran like Hopkins. The talent is so unbalanced that it’s noticeable.
The last 30 minutes, in which Father Lucas himself is possessed, are what get you. Hopkins still knows how to chill an audience with his blue eyes even when they’ve been turned yellow by demonic forces. He is in top form, and every time Michael leans in to try and call the demon out I’m afraid he’s going to lose his nose.
The story itself is more about the personal journey with religion that Michael has than exorcism, and the ending leaves it hollow. The attractive journalist Angeline, whom Michael just brings along because she’s working on a story about these things, tells Michael he must accept God to be strong enough. “You are not alone,” she says. She might as well just have told him all he needed to defeat evil was love and turned it into a make out scene.
The end drops off Michael where he began–the priesthood. I had hoped after his religious revelation he might realize faith could be expressed outside of being a priest and he might just turn into another good Catholic, attending church on Sundays.