Ever since The Exorcist showed up in 1973 and pretty much invented the "possession-based horror film," we've had a reliably steady stream of copycats, imitators and inspirations hit the screens. At best these flicks are slightly diverting horror fare and at worst they're gory, tiresome, stupid retreads of much better movies. Once in a while, though, we get a religious horror flick that transcends its often-familiar trappings and comes up with a hook that's, at the very least, slightly original. Last year's The Last Exorcism did it by focusing on an ambiguous lead character instead of on "the possessed," and the new release The Rite does it by asking a lot of smart, skeptical questions that may keep an astute viewer on his toes.
More of an occult-based character study than a plot-driven horror story, The Rite comes from Mikael Hafstrom, whom the genre fans may remember from Ondskan (aka Evil) or the Stephen King adaptation 1408, and it's refreshingly free of the teenage mentality that runs rampant through many recent flicks of this ilk. The Rite focuses on an aspiring priest who is constantly struggling with his faith. After a horrific accident makes a few things clear for young Michael Kovak, he's sent off to Rome to learn about the art of the exorcism. Eventually Michael is paired up with a seasoned old priest who takes demonic possession as an unimpeachable fact of reality. Even after meeting a young pregnant girl who clearly seems possessed, Michael remains steadfastly skeptical. To begin with, anyway...
And that's what makes The Rite so interesting: it's not about a pair of holy men who purge demons from innocent people. It's about a young priest who doesn't even believe in The Devil -- but doesn't that also mean he fails to believe in God, too? Hell, maybe Michael should just head back home to the creepy mortuary his father runs. Hafstrom and screenwriter Michael Petroni (working from a book by Matt Baglio) present their ideas with an admirable sense of confidence and frequent cleverness. Up until an overlong Act III that sucks a little wind from the film's sails, The Rite is a calmly, quietly, and unexpectedly smart little occult thriller that knows you've seen all the other ones before this, but remedies the familiarity by challenging the very basis of the sub-genre: what happens if an exorcist doesn't believe in the devil?
Irish newcomer Colin O'Donoghue does a fine job of presenting a protagonist who's both sympathetic and interesting, and his scenes with the legendary Anthony Hopkins are particularly solid. Those worried that Hopkins would chew the scenery through this flick need not worry: it's an odd performance, but Hopkins is generally quite sedate and effortlessly smooth throughout The Rite. He also seems to be having a little fun with the role, and his unexpected quips add a lot of personality to the proceedings. Alice Braga, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and the great Rutger Hauer add some support color, but The Rite is mostly The O'Donoghue & Hopkins show, and that's not a bad thing. (Young Maria Gastini also does some great work as the possessed pregnant girl.)
It takes some confidence to even bother with an "occult horror" flick at this point, as we've no doubt seen the possession story 150 times by now. The Rite avoids this problem by taking the skeptical approach; by having its lead character (a priest in training, no less) approach the tale with more disbelief than the viewer, it makes the crazier stuff seem a little less ... goofy. Handsomely shot, well-scored, and (until Act III) appreciably well-paced, The Rite is a surprisingly fine little chiller. The film's intent on keeping things ambiguous makes it feel a little bit like a thriller version of Doubt -- and that's fairly high praise for a low-profile horror flick that's being shuttled into theaters in the dead month of January.