Someone needs to write an official, word-is-bond handbook for horror screenwriters. In such a tome, there’d need to be an entire chapter dedicated to scribing exorcism-related scripts, being that Hollywood loves cranking a demonic possession flick out at least once a year. Michael Petroni, the writer behind the new God-versus-Satan movie The Rite, could’ve benefitted greatly from that section, in particular. Since there’s no such lawful text available, though, Petroni went against what should be an obvious sentiment: There’s nothing scary about a demon saying, “Whatever, dude,” no matter the context.
If only the occasional asinine lines of dialogue were the only missteps plaguing The Rite, a lifeless, imbalanced mess that can’t decide whether it’s trying to terrify or amuse. Smart money is on the former, since Petroni and Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom throw damn near every horror cliche at the screen. You want a cheap jump scare, well then how about a cat smacking a window for no good reason? How about some flashbacks to a traumatic childhood? Bet. And, just for good measure, enjoy the sight of a gorgeous female character (Alice Braga) who serves absolutely zero narrative purpose other than to give the hero something to do other than stare indifferently during the exorcism scenes. The Rite has all of these generic elements, and more.
“Suggested by” (whatever that means) Matt Baglio’s 2009 non-fiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, The Rite centers on young Michael Kovak (first-time movie actor Colin O’Donoghue), a seminary school student who’s trying to overcome a crisis of faith. His mentor (Toby Jones) suggests that Michael spend two months studying exorcism practices in Rome, due to Michael’s past experience at his father’s mortuary business. In Rome, he meets Father Lucas, an eccentric and unorthodox demon-slayer played with manic glee by Anthony Hopkins. Under the Father’s tutelage, Michael gets in over his head when they try to help a possessed 16-year-old pregnant girl.
And that’s when the creepy fun begins, right? Not quite. Unfortunately, The Rite is a plodding bore until the balls-to-the-wall finale, but even then Hafstrom’s film fumbles what could’ve been a ferocious climax. Petroni’s script lacks pacing and verve, sure, but a movie is only as exciting as its leading man, especially, when the main-man is on screen for nearly every frame. The Rite needed a commanding young presence to play off Hopkins’ unhinged performance, yet O’Donoghue is anything but that. When the Irish actor isn’t sleepily botching Petroni’s already-stale dialogue, he’s reacting to some rather horrific occurrences with his one stock facial expression: a Napoleon Dynamite-like vacancy of emotion. Amongst a pretty stellar cast (which also includes Rutger Hauer and Ciarin Hinds, both underused), O’Donoghue is completely out of his league. The only person who seems to be having any fun is Hopkins, whose character goes from being a crazy-grandfather type to hamming it up as a devilish insult comic. Clearly, the Academy Award-winning master knew exactly what kind of film he was making, and simply went for it.
Hafstrom’s last film, the efficient Stephen King adaptation 1408, showed a filmmaker operating with deftness and an understanding of what’s truly macabre. In The Rite, he does all he can to elevate the lame script, supplementing visual trickery and overdone sound design to no avail. He should’ve performed an exorcism on the screenplay long before pre-production.