Every January, right around Superbowl Sunday, Hollywood belches up a horrible horror movie. This year’s offering: The Rite, about a skeptical young man of the cloth (Colin O’Donogue) who goes to Rome to apprentice under an exorcist (Anthony Hopkins) in order to test his faith and discover whether he truly believes in God. This is the second film from director Mikael Hafstrom about a guy who grows to believe in the supernatural. The first, 1408, I admired; it had a tour de force turn by John Cusack and was one of the better Stephen King adaptations. This one, meanwhile, falls flat.
It’s unfortunate, because The Rite is always interesting, featuring unsettling scenes of are-they-or-aren’t-they-real exorcisms that allow the audience to share in the protagonist’s skepticism. But the film commits a cardinal horror-movie sin—it’s rarely scary—and fails to deliver on its intriguing premise.
Like every movie about exorcisms, The Rite wants to be on the level of The Exorcist, the seminal 1973 film that spawned a thousand imitators. Unfortunately it’s more like the unintentionally hilarious Exorcist II. Thoughtful theological discussions are constantly undermined by visions of killer frogs, a mule with glowing red eyes and some ripe-to-the-point-of-rotten dialogue. Even the skeptical angle gets beaten to death: after a particularly gruesome exorcism—where a pregnant girl contorts like a pretzel, speaks in tongues and vomits large spikes—the doubtful priest still doesn’t believe in the existence of evil.
Hopkins’s peculiar choices of late—including last year’s The Wolf Man and the forthcoming superhero flick Thor—are beginning to mar his once-prestigious filmography. But you know what? He gets a pass. He played Hannibal Lecter, for heaven’s sake, and has at least 20 other brilliant performances to his credit. And, while this isn’t close to his best work, he still commands every scene with his effortless, authoritative presence.
The bigger problem is Colin O’Donoghue, who looks like a Calvin Klien model and only has one expression. In fact, he gives a performance so woefully wooden and one-note, I feared that he was possessed by the spirit of Keanu Reeves. Someone call an exorcist.