*The Rite (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The Rite's biggest demon appears to be its January release date. That, and it promises to offer Hannibal Lecter 2.0 and The Exorcist part, say, 666. Mikael Håfström's inspired-by-true-events film need only surpass sub-basement expectations to be considered a success, then; it's a nice surprise to find that it's actually a solid movie, Satan fatigue notwithstanding.
And The Rite separates itself a bit from William Friedkin's 1973 classic by winking at it: "What did you expect, spinning heads? Pea soup?" asks Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins) of his student, new and doubting priest Father Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue, in his feature film debut).
Michael, the son of a mortician (Rutger Hauer), attends a seminary only to get a free education and avoid the family business. Michael's inclination is to discuss the deceased's lives; his father warns him that "bad things happen" when you talk about the dead. Son plans to resign, but his superior (Toby Jones) instead sends him to Rome to study with the "unorthodox" exorcism expert Lucas, and perhaps finally get some faith scared into him.
Michael's first exposure to demon-expelling is a session with a 16-year-old pregnant girl (Marta Gastini), during which Lucas takes a phone call and handles the girl's growls and unnatural joint bends as business as usual. Lucas explains that it takes several visits for an exorcism to be successful (if it is successful), and the girl shows up and leaves as a sweet young thing, her evil side only taunted out mid-ritual.
Despite having seen the teen vomiting nails, Michael stays convinced that the people Lucas deals with are mentally disturbed, not possessed — at least until weird things start happening to him, too, including Lucas suddenly acting more sinner than saint.
Adapting from a book by Matt Baglio, writer Michael Petroni (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) and Håfström (1408) maintain a nice pace, keeping cheap scares to a minimum in favor of chilling details such as hearing the voices of the dead or the good ol' eyes rolling to the back of the head. The Irish O'Donoghue, perhaps concentrating a little too much on his American accent, is more a workaday prop than personality here, the better to spotlight the Anthony Hopkins show.
Yes, there are shades of Hannibal when the devil makes Lucas do things. But damn if Hopkins isn't fantastic at rendering in-your-face whispers or sudden glances creepy as hell. And when he's just Lucas, man of God, albeit an admittedly skeptical one, Hopkins is often funny, which is welcome in between scenes of, you know, regular folk contorting in unnatural ways or puking hardware.
For exposition's sake — and, one assumes, to represent Baglio, whose book is nonfiction — there's also a sexy journalist named Angeline (Alice Braga) who befriends Michael after they meet in the Vatican's exorcism school and presses him for details on what he sees when he's with Lucas. But their discussions actually keep the film moving instead of bogging it down with explanations the audience has already gleaned.
Håfström's main sin is relying too heavily on sound effects when things go bananas. Satan, it seems, has a stubborn echo to his voice and likes to roar randomly to let us know he means business. It may not be pea soup, but it's close.