Ever since the classic “The Exorcist” movies about demonic possession have been scaring the crap out of horror fans everywhere, but what is it about these movies that makes them so genuinely scary? For people that believe in God (or a god) I think it's the idea that while vampires and zombies may be scary, they are not real, but the devil is real, and the idea that he could take over your body is a very terrifying thing. Even for atheists and agnostics I think the idea of losing control of your body and mind generates a bit of a shudder. If you plan to watch the new film from director Mikael Håfström (“1408”) be prepared to do a bit of shuddering.
“The Rite” is the story of Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue), a young man who has gone to seminary school rather than be stuck working at the family mortuary. As he nears the end of his education he decides that his heart really isn't in it, and he is not going to take the vows to become a priest. It is then that Father Matthew (Toby Jones: “W.”), one of his instructors, suggests that he take a two month course at The Vatican as part of the church's attempt to install an exorcist in every diocese.
It is in Italy that Michael is sent to meet Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins: “Silence of the Lambs”), a warm, quirky priest who also happens to be a practicing exorcist. Lucas tries to show Michael that demonic possession is real, but he remains skeptical until things become a little too real. Suddenly faced with an all-too-real display of supernatural phenomenon, Michael must figure out what he really believes before it is too late.
Let me be frank here; this is a long and very emotionally draining film to watch. The actual length, about two hours, is my only real complaint here. A good chunk of the first half hour could have easily been chopped out and alluded to in some expositional speech. There were some funny moments, and some shocking moments, but nothing like what I was expecting from the trailers.
The movie doesn't really get moving until Michael finally meets Father Trevant, and this is why Anthony Hopkins is the star of the film even though he is not the main character. Hopkins shows a great amount of range in this film, originally playing Trevant as a kindly, if hard-edged, old man makes his portrayal of demonic possession all the more horrifying later on.
Hopkins quickly switched back and forth between accents and voices as the demon inside Trevant threatens and mocks Michael for his lack of faith, frequently walking a fine like between scary and laughable, but never quite crossing it. It is a powerful role, but it is a scene early on in the possession that got the biggest reaction at the screening I attended The audience audibly gasped at a scene with the priest standing in a park; a little girl approaches him, asking him to bless her dolly when he... well, now that would be telling. I will tell you this though; I expected him to do something horrible to the child, but I did not expect that.
This movie is scary, not the sort of stab you in the eye, bogeyman under the bed scary, but more of the your immortal soul is at risk scary. If you are not a religious person, then some of this may be lost on you, but I am enough of a believer to find the last thirty to forty-five minutes of this movie extremely frightening. It is kind of a shame that it took the movie so long to get there, but then maybe that was the idea; lull you into a false sense of security before unloading on you with both barrels at once. Of course I don't know that almost putting your audience to sleep before scaring the hell out of them is the best tactic.
Aside from Anthony Hopkins' stellar performance, there is also newcomer (to American audiences, anyway) Marta Gastini as possessed teen mother-to-be, Rosaria. The film spends a good amount of time with Rosaria as Lucas tries to both free her from the demon inside and convince Michael that her possession is real, and not the product of some mental illness. Like Hopkins, Gastini's role requires her to quickly and repeatedly jump back and forth from being a scared, shy teenager, and writhing sexualized monster from hell, and the end result is very disturbing at times.
Despite its slow beginning, “The Rite” does manage to be an intense experience before the end credits roll. If you are willing to sit through the first third of the film you will be rewarded for your patience. If you want to be scared I can't think of a better choice in theaters right now. I found this to be a well-acted piece that I enjoyed a lot, but I honestly can't say that I expect to ever watch it again; it's good, but it's a very stressful movie to watch. So leave the kids and the faint of heart at home, and bring your crucifix with you when “The Rite” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.