Movie Review: “The Rite” lacks chills

Poster for 'The Rite.' Not your traditional horror movie. Photo credit : Morgan Strasser

Timothy Black
Staff Writer

Hollywood and Catholicism have what can, at best, be called a “love-hate” relationship. One of the rare exceptions to this rule is the classic exorcism movie, a genre to which “The Rite” is the latest addition. The plot is simple enough to summarize in a few sentences: a gutsy, cynical young protagonist (Colin O’Donoghue) runs away from an uncomfortable home life by enrolling in a seminary, only to be assigned to a hardened yet quirky exorcist (Anthony Hopkins). Ultimately (and predictably) O’Donoghue’s Michael Kovak finds his contemptuous denial replaced by doubt, fear, and finally faith as he assists in, and eventually leads, exorcisms.

When compared to other exorcism movies, “The Rite” does not deviate much from the norm. It adheres to a classic formula of exorcism imagery: the deep-voiced girl bellowing insults at the priests, speaking in other languages, knowledge of the impossible, etcetera. Some of the more extreme aspects of exorcism, such as the head-spinning in “The Exorcist” or the “amazing spider-girl” of “The Last Exorcism” are absent, most likely because the writers wanted the audience to question whether or not a victim is truly possessed, or simply suffering from an extreme psychological condition.

The “rules” of exorcism are thoroughly explained in the first quarter of the movie, although this portion was subject to its fair share of eye-rolling dialogue. For example,  the notion of “squadrons” of demons and the rather preposterous slideshow depicting what demons are supposed to look like. The film, predictably enough, creates a cocktail of superstition, psychology and theology in order to engineer a universe in which demons manifest themselves both physically in the human body and in the minds of those connected to the possessed. This is done to varying degrees of success, from Michael Kovak’s rather tedious childhood flashbacks to a well-done hallucination sequence at a hotel.

“The Rite” is a well-acted film, with Anthony Hopkins delivering once more on his reputation as a legend of the genre; it is from Hopkins’ character that one will derive the most chills, although more than once the viewer will see a ghost of Hannibal Lecter in his performance. O’Donoghue’s character was both well-written and commendably acted, if somewhat wooden. The film tends to drag in any scene involving Alice Braga’s Angelina Vargas who, whether through fault of the writers or actress, comes off flat, acting more as a sounding board for O’Donoghue than a character in and of itself.

Moreover, a better-thought-out character with a less cliché background would have been appreciated; the horror genre has seen enough plucky investigative reporters with traumatizing pasts. If “The Rite” is to be examined as it is classified, a horror movie, it comes off as dull. There is a noted lack of “thrills and chills” and the atmosphere is absent of that classic feeling of fear. However, where “The Rite” lacks the scared-senseless of “Paranormal Activity 2” or the irrational, sensational action of “Halloween,” it redeems itself in its presentation of a thoughtful, interesting storyline.

The characters are, for the most part, intelligent and realistic, which, in this writer’s opinion, already sets the film head-and-shoulders above the horror genre’s
grain. There are no drunken cheerleaders staggering into a serial killer’s path and no nauseatingly predictable fake-outs. There is an absence of poorly-lit rooms and the characters’ cell phones are perfectly functional and every action in the film is well-explained.

Unfortunately, it is this distinctive lack of horror film standbys that effectively prevents “The Rite” from being the true horror film it claims to be.  A better classification, in my opinion, would have been a “supernatural thriller.”

Overall, I would not call “The Rite” a scary movie. And, because it is not a scary movie in the traditional sense, it fails when viewed through the lens of a horror critic. The biggest problem “The Rite” faces is that it does not live up to its genre; imagine J.K. Rowling publishing “Harry Potter” as science fiction and you will have an idea of where “The Rite” went wrong (no pun intended).

That being said, that while I would not call “The Rite” a scary movie, nor would I call it a bad movie. The plot is interesting and contained a refreshing take on a tried-and-tested theme. It is respectful of its subject matter and yet easily accessible to most demographics. So, if your question is whether or not to see “The Rite” in theatres, I would respond with this: The movie is definitely worth your attention, but don’t expect it to keep you up at night.

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