Here’s the thing about exorcism-related horror movies: exorcisms are incredibly uninteresting in a cinematic production. Sure, it’s exciting to consider a battle royale between an agent of Satan and an agent of God, but exorcisms merely boil down to a priest screaming religious words with wild abandon while a possessed figure writhers around. 1973’s The Exorcist was pretty much the first film to do it right, and is now widely looked upon as the greatest horror movie of all time. 2011’s The Rite is yet another hopeful but thoroughly half-hearted attempt by filmmakers to scare viewers just as much as The Exorcist did almost four decades ago. The Rite has all the scares and smarts of a Z-grade direct-to-DVD thriller, not to mention it’s amazingly hokey and at times unintentionally hilarious. As a matter of fact, the film is tolerable enough if viewed as a comedy, but it’s a putrid failure if viewed as a serious horror movie.
Raised by his disinterested undertaker father (Hauer), atheist Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) elects to enter the priesthood as a way to ensure he won’t be forced into the family business. The ensuing seminary training challenges Michael’s atheism, but the young man prepares to leave the school as he nevertheless cannot bring himself to believe in God. However, his mentor (Jones) senses something special within Michael, and recommends that he move to Rome to study exorcism at the Vatican. Hesitantly agreeing, Michael arrives in Rome and is sent to spent time with veteran exorcist Father Lucas (Hopkins) to help him overcome his crisis of faith. Following his initial scepticism, Michael experiences a strange case of possession which compels him to reconsider his stance as an atheist.
The opening credits declare that The Rite is “inspired by true events”, and goes on to say that the film was “suggested” by Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. As with most movies claiming to be inspired by a true story, it actually has very little basis in historical fact. Ironically, Baglio wrote his book with the purpose in mind of showing the real world of church-sanctioned exorcisms rather than the overblown Hollywood version, but now his book has been loosely adapted into an overblown Hollywood movie…
Despite its misjudged pacing, The Rite shows a degree of thoughtfulness and potential for its first hour or so, as the film attempts to delve into religious themes and explore the real world of possession and exorcisms. Less successful in this regard is the material portraying Michael trying to use rational explanations to explain alleged demonic possessions. See, because The Rite is a fucking Hollywood supernatural horror movie, we know that there are demons involved and that Michael will eventually realise this. There is also an additional smattering of clichéd material relating to Michael’s relationship with his father, and screenwriter Michael Petroni even haphazardly implies that demons had something to do with the death of a character. Come on! All of this predictable fluff is ripped straight from the Screenwriting 101 handbook, complete with inept, corny dialogue.
Swedish-born director Mikael Håfström was last seen behind the genuinely creepy 2007 chiller 1408, and his talent for atmosphere building is occasionally exhibited in The Rite. Additionally, the cinematography is admittedly slick. Yet, Håfström falters in the pacing department. With a frequently self-serious tone and little momentum, The Rite is rather flat, not to mention it runs 15 or 20 minutes too long. Another problem is that the filmmakers wanted to produce a film that looks and feels authentic and un-Hollywood, yet one that also incorporates standard Hollywood horror movie elements. Suffice it to say, it does not work.
The jury is out as to whether it was intentional, but the second half of The Rite dabbles in comedy to a large degree. At one stage there’s an image of a possessed donkey which is guaranteed to have viewers rolling around in fits of laughter. Meanwhile, the climactic exorcism sequence is so daffy that it could be mistaken for something out of a spoof movie. It’s hard to take anything seriously if a possessed Anthony Hopkins (decked out in make-up) is taunting a priest with such names as “honey” and “kissy lips”. As a matter of fact, it looks as if Hopkins committed the ultimate act of cinematic trolling here with his hilariously over-the-top, hammy performance. Witness him taking a phone call in the middle of an exorcism, bitch slapping a little girl, taking the piss out of the bible, ripping off two pissants, and blurting out words like “Awesome, dude“. It’s as if Hopkins realised the movie was going to be awful, so he stuffed the huge fat paycheque down his trousers and had an absolute ball. The man’s getting old, he needs to have some fun. What better than to troll his way through a terrible movie and get paid to do it? God bless him. The rest of the actors – such as Colin O’Donoghue as Michael, Alice Braga as the journalist, Toby Jones as a priest, and Rutger Hauer as Michael’s father – are at least watchable, but do not bring much gravitas to the material.
There is nothing to recommend about The Rite except for Anthony Hopkins’ incredibly hammy performance, since there are no real thrills to be had and the story is generic and uninteresting. It’s clear that the screenwriter had high ambitions, but they’re ultimately wasted on a film that alternates between tedium and unintentional hilarity.