Does “The Rite” have the right stuff?

David Clements

Staff Reporter

Renowned actor Sir Anthony Hopkins returned to the horror scene this weekend with the release of his supernatural thriller “The Rite.” Director Mikael Håfström’s film is the latest to revolve around exorcisms, but does it live up to the original legend of The Exorcist, or completely flop?

The short answer is neither. It’s true that “The Rite” certainly can’t compare to William Friedkin’s original classic, but it doesn’t actively try to, unlike the last few exorcism movies. While not strictly anti-Hollywood, it departs from Hollywood’s big blockbuster, special effects-heavy style.

Instead, Håfström went with quiet, low-key tension, rather than strings of jump scares and blood and gore. The only special effects seen throughout were in the detailed make-up on the actors that were possessed by demons. The plot is also a departure from a conventional horror flick.

Lead protagonist Michael Kovak, portrayed by actor Colin O’Donoghue, starts out working as a mortician with his father in their business. From the get-go, it’s clear that Michael is a conflicted individual.

Unhappy with where he is in life, Michael enters seminary school, hoping to get himself a free college degree. After four years, just as he is about to be ordained, Michael cannot bring himself to complete his schooling due to his shaky faith. The Father Superior, believing Michael has a calling to be a priest, convinces him to take a course on exorcism in Rome. There, he remains a skeptic, pointing out how most demon possessions end up being nothing more than mental illness. The priest teaching the class advises him to visit an old friend, Father Lucas (Hopkins), an experienced exorcist with unorthodox methods. Father Lucas takes him under his wing while they work to rid a young pregnant girl of a demon. Michael’s skepticism remains throughout the process, even as the demon ups the stakes higher and higher.

Some may see it as another cash-in on the exorcism genre of horror, but at its core, “The Rite” is about finding and holding onto your faith. Michael Kovak’s faith is questioned through the whole film, even after witnessing some nightmarish events, right up to the end when the demon involved is in his face.

Even Hopkins’s character admits that after all his years as a priest and exorcist, his faith in God has shifted from time to time. The movie seems to want to drive home the point that one’s faith will always be tested and shaken, but holding on to it will be the most beneficial in the end.

“The Rite” must also be praised for its different portrayal of demonic possessions. Håfström decided to show them in a more realistic light—there is no vomiting of pea soup or spinning heads. The victims shown instead go through physical torment and speak in inhuman voices, the most noticeable sign being dark, veined skin.

There is no grand climax if/when a demon has been released; it simply vanishes from its host. O’Donoghue’s character even admits how anticlimactic it is. The biggest inaccuracy of the movie is in its opening statement that demonic possessions are becoming something of an epidemic. In truth, the Vatican dismisses the vast majority of possession reports as simple mental illnesses.

Considering it didn’t have much hype behind it, “The Rite” was a pleasant surprise. While there weren’t many scares to make you jump, the movie has a constant feeling of tension from beginning to end. Christians and believers in general will appreciate it far more than those that don’t, both as entertainment and for its horror factor.

True, it is obviously pro-Christian, but it doesn’t really come across as preachy. All of the actors were very real and believable, but unsurprisingly, Sir Anthony Hopkins really steals the show. “The Rite” may not linger in your nightmares, but it will stick with you and make you think, especially if you believe. It certainly has the right stuff.