A conflicted young Catholic priest becomes an apprentice exorcist, schooled by an older man of the cloth who counsels him in the ways of dealing with the devil.
Sound familiar? It should, if you’ve ever seen “The Exorcist,” which totally freaked out audiences back in 1973. Ever since, Hollywood has been repeatedly trying to serve up something satanically similar to scare successive generations silly—and create around-the-block lines of holy box-office gold.
This new devil-made-me-do-it thriller was supposedly “inspired” by a 2009 book, “The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” that detailed the experiences of a real-life priest who assisted in more than 20 church-sanctioned rituals.
The movie’s got a big star, Anthony Hopkins, as the older, experienced exorcist. It’s got some gorgeously creepy cinematography. The opening scene of a body being prepped for burial sets an early, ominous tone, one in which you’re just waiting for something to bump or thump or jump up and go “Boo!”
It’s got a writhing, hissing, pregnant teen, a brood of foreboding cats, a demonic-looking, red-eyed mule, and a scene that gives a new meaning to projectile vomiting.
And it confronts, head-on, the contemporary scientific skepticism that surrounds the age-old religious belief in demons, and the modern church’s use of both ancient ritual and contemporary technology—like when an exorcism is interrupted by the ringing of the priest’s cell phone.
But the movie just isn’t very scary, certainly not to any audience member even passingly familiar with its now-old-hat tricks and reasonably primed to expect a level of state-of-the-arts special effects that “The Rite” never comes close to delivering.
As the young priest Michael Kovack, Colin O’Donoghue drifts through the movie without leaving much of any kind of impression. Hopkins, as Father Trevant, veers off in the movie’s climax to a monologue that seems channeled from Hannibal Lector, the character he played with such memorable menace in “Silence of the Lambs.”
It doesn’t help sustain the requisite atmosphere of horrific gloom and soul-stealing doom when Father Trevant approaches his job, more or less, like a weary pest-control specialist worn down by years and years of driving off a persistent cockroach that just keeps crawling back.
The movie’s turn in its last half toward a big-finish showdown between good and evil isn’t near the shocking surprise it could have been. If you’ve seen the preview, you’ll be looking for the devil in the details long before his dark highness finally shows up.
When it’s all over, O’Donoghue’s character trades his cynicism for faith. Most moviegoers, however, will remain skeptical about at least one thing: that Hollywood will ever find a way to get out from under the devilishly long shadow of “The Exorcist.”