01 February 2011

Maybe Go See This: The Rite

Saturday night, Dave and I had plans to go see The King's Speech. I had originally wanted to go see The Rite, since in my mind any horror flick is preferable Saturday night entertainment than an art house movie that has major Oscar buzz around it and will probably play in our local theatres for a million years.

And since The Rite combines an exorcism theme with Anthony Hopkins (these are a few of my favourite things), I wanted to go.

As of Saturday, however, The Rite was rating a dismal 17% on Rotten Tomatoes (now down to 16%!), and Dave said he wasn't up for it. So, The King's Speech it was.

We live a whopping 5 minute drive from Hamilton's fine downtown core, where we like to go to catch movies. Being that close has a bad effect on me: I usually figure that so long as we're leaving the house around the time the movie's supposed to start, we can fly down the street and be there before the opening credits. So there we were, almost hitting downtown at 8:33pm, and I turned to Dave and said:

"Did you turn the stove off?"

It's been so brutally dry here, that we've been boiling giant pots of water during the day to make sure that the air in the house is hydrated. Otherwise, my eyeballs shrivel and our skin is dry and flaky and you can't touch the cat without setting off a massive static electric charge.

Dave wasn't sure if he'd turned the stove off or not, and the vision of a house fire in which everything we owned and our two beloved pets went down in flames filled my mind. So we turned the car around, came back to find that the stove was indeed turned off, and headed back downtown just in time to catch The Rite.

If you're reading this to decide whether or not to see this movie, I would suggest this litmus test: do you like horror movies, and are you fascinated by the idea of exorcism? Do you want to spend some time looking at a film with a slightly mellower, lower key, and therefore different take on devils, possession, and the role of the exorcist? Then yes, go see it.

If you don't much like the genre and you don't have tons of experience with the idea of exorcism and you thought The Exorcist was stupid, then, uh, you might want to see The King's Speech instead.

Details and spoilers below the fold.

Apparently The Rite is based (presumably loosely) on Matt Baglio's nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. I remember hearing about this book when it came out a while back and thinking "Hmmm! That sounds interesting!" and then forgetting all about it. (Sorry, Matt Baglio. You're on my future reading list now.) In some ways, this foundation shows in the film's approach to exorcism. There's a reliance on statistics here, and an attempt to revise glamourized Hollywood depictions of exorcism. Specifically, there's a pot shot or two at The Exorcist, since that is the gold standard of exorcism films to which all others must answer and be weighed against.

The Rite follows Michael Kovak (played by Colin O'Donoghue), a reluctant priest-in-training, as he (reluctantly) attends a Vatican seminar that seeks to train priests and nuns in the art of exorcism. Now, I don't know about you, but I would be super stoked to attend a seminar like that, regardless of my feelings about the church or my lack of faith or my fear of taking a vow of celibacy. Kovak's character is a bit of a plank in this regard. He seriously needed a nerdy best friend to show him the light.

Kovak's seminar instructor recognizes his lack of commitment to the class and sends him off to visit Lucas Trevant, a reclusive Welsh priest living in the most gorgeous decrepit building ever. Hopkins' turn as Trevant is fucking fantastic, as you would expect (with the possible exception of some Hannibal Lecter drag moments toward the end of the film). He's an actively practicing exorcist. Kovak witnesses a session between Trevant and one of his clients / patients / possessed people (what is the correct term here exactly? possessees?). Hilarity ensues.

The film plays it cool with the exorcism scenes - there is a pea soup joke, but no pea soup, and the physical contortions are relatively subtle and plausible, at least at first. The primary possessee, a pregnant teenager, displays serious signs of distress that Kovak is convinced are psychological in nature. After a first, harrowing, exorcism session, Trevant sends her home to rest - one of a number of fascinating details that the film delivers in spades.

This is not your mother's exorcism film. The rules of the road are different here. Getting rid of a demon, The Rite posits, can take many sessions spread out over months. Like a physical or psychological illness, it isn't something that you can take care of in a single, climactic moment. If you make a demon unhappy, it will come after you, but not in immediately obvious ways. Just because you're a priest with tons of experience, doesn't mean you're immune to the effects of evil.

The chills here are less jump scares, more "yikes" type moments. The suppurating scab on the scalp of the pregnant teen is both a sign of her suffering and an indication of the something otherworldly that's taken up residence in her skull. There's a lovely edginess to the late stage of her pregnancy and the severity of the possession combined with the sheer physical exertion that goes on during the exorcism scenes. A younger victim of the same demon who turns up later in the film displays many deep horseshoe shaped bruises, the result of the nighttime visitor he calls "the mule." There are some great nail-regurgitation scenes. There is one scene - in which we learn that Trevant has not remained immune to the influence of the demon - that executes a wonderful slow reveal. It's disorienting and nasty without being over the top or gross.

I kind of wish that the plot hung on something other than Kovak's story of realizing his faith in God. Colin O'Donoghue is fine in the role, but I would have liked to see his development following a less expected track. It might have been interesting to see him try the tools of exorcism and see that they worked, despite his shaky faith. In his earlier meetings with Trevant, Kovak learns that the older priest doesn't always feel that he's totally in touch with God, and yet he continues to do the work of the exorcist, because clearly he believes it's good work. The idea that ritual doesn't work unless you're 100% sure of your faith in God is convenient from a narrative perspective, but you know, the most convenient narrative isn't necessarily the best one.

These are but quibbles, however. All in all The Rite is decent entertainment with a few original ideas in the mix.

If you want to skip The Rite altogether and dive into a really different possession narrative, check out A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans. Evans did an incredible amount of research for this book, which (for the writers and researchers among us) he details on his website, along with his writing process. As a former Renaissance scholar, I appreciated the truly weird and old school feel to what the narrator of A Good and Happy Child experiences as he's pursued by a different breed of devil.


Unknown said...

I'm the sort of reader of horror books and watcher of horror films who needs to know what happens in the end to make a start at all. Weird, I know, but I do not want to be too spooked, heh

I saw the poster for The Rite today and now that I know exactly what it is about, I can go watch it. Thankyou :)

Elizabeth Twist said...

I get it, Damyanti. The reason why I love horror is that I'm totally susceptible. Glad I could help you out. I hope you enjoy seeing The Rite.