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, a new and doubting priest (Colin O’Donoghue, in his feature-film debut). O’Donoghue’s Father Michael, the son of a mortician, attends seminary school only to get a free education and avoid the family business. He plans to resign when he’s sent to Rome to study with the “unorthodox” exorcism expert Lucas and perhaps finally get some faith scared into him.
His first exposure 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. Michael stays convinced that the people Lucas deals with are mentally disturbed, not possessed—at least until freaky 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—the voices of the dead, frequently, plus some good ol’ eyes rolling to the back of the head. The Irish O’Donoghue, perhaps concentrating a bit too much on his American accent, is more a workaday prop than a 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 and sudden glances creepy as hell.