Releasing Studio: Warner Bros./New Line Cinema
Disc/Transfer Specifications: 1080p High Definition 2.40:1; Region 1 (U.S.) Release
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Tested Audio Track: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga
This was a definite buy for me – wait: Let me rephrase that. It wasn’t so definite, but it piqued my interest enough theatrically when I saw it to warrant a Blu-ray purchase upon its home video launch. These types of demonic possession/occult films – and, subsequently, stories they are based on – have always intrigued me for some reason (and I am not even of the Catholic faith that still believes in such demonic possibilities); with the seminal and marquee-toppling granddaddy of them all in this genre, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, have come ridiculous amounts of spinoffs, copies and even spoofs (remember the late Leslie Nielsen in Repossessed with Linda Blair herself?). Since the 1973 shocker, a gaggle of sequels – and some prequels – put out by Warner Bros. in an attempt to cash in on the success of Friedkin’s first film (based on the chilling novel by William Peter Blatty) were a precursor to a relentless wave of projects like Amityville II: The Possession, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Constantine et. al., with each of them claiming to be based on some sort of curious backstory that the filmmakers or authors wanted us to believe was harbored in some truth. Dating back as far as the original Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s book suggested that this tale was based on a supposed true case of a young boy’s alleged possession and subsequent exorcism, later changed to be a girl’s in Blatty’s novel concept and, ultimately, in Friedkin’s film adaptation (in which Linda Blair’s now infamous performance of the tormented and demonically possessed “Regan Mac Neil” became a household reference). In The Exorcist’s wake, most of these tales of demonic possession have claimed to be rooted in some kind of truth – the “prequel” story that 1982’s Amityville II: The Possession was supposedly based on stemmed from the true case of the De Feo murders in New York during the 1970s, in which a young man gunned down his entire Italian American family in their suburban home within the limits of Amityville, Long Island. Sensationalized by the second family to buy the house and subsequently be “driven” from it by “evil spirits,” The Amityville Horror threw this case into the public spotlight although it was the “sequel/prequel” in 1982 – the aforementioned Amityville II: The Possession (based on the book Murder in Amityville by Hans Holzer ) – which documented the De Feo murders a year before the Lutz family purchased the so-called haunted house. Amityville II attempted to explore the possibility that Ronald De Feo – the man responsible for murdering his family that fateful night in New York – was “possessed” by demons that may have infested his now-infamous home. Character names were changed for that film (the De Feos suddenly became the “Montellis” and Ronald De Feo became “Sonny Montelli,” played by Jack Magner) but the underlying theme explored at least the possibility that De Feo was possessed that night and “ordered” to kill the family.
Other such examples in Hollywood abound with this kind of approach; working off the list I supplied earlier, The Exorcism of Emily Rose suggested to us that a young college aged girl was possessed by demons when she went off to college, and when the family’s parish priest (played by the great Tom Wilkinson) attempted multiple exorcisms, the girl eventually died from all the stress placed on her tormented body. The film was touted as a “true case,” but upon further investigation, this “Emily Rose” didn’t bear that name nor much resemblance of any connection to the film’s events; from all accounts, this was a supposed case of something that happened somewhere in Europe, but what we were given as audiences when Sony Pictures released The Exorcism of Emily Rose strayed so far from the “real” path, the entire location was changed, going from Europe to some desolate Midwestern farm in the U.S. Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as “Emily” was creepy enough, but it was the wild claims that this was a “true story” that rubbed many audiences the wrong way once many facts about the case came out. Of course, this does not merely happen within occult circles in Hollywood – the supernatural alien abduction thriller The Fourth Kind suggested we were watching actual raw, live footage of people in Nome, Alaska being taken over by alien beings, who were speaking through them and ultimately abducting them. Once these “facts” were examined a bit closer with research, the truth was far less menacing – not only were these “real” sequences nothing of the sort, the disappearances of the people of this Alaskan town weren’t nearly as dramatic as the filmmakers suggested. It sure was a scary ride though.
Still, nothing is seemingly stopping filmmakers from doing these “based on real events” or “suggested by actual events” stories that are otherwise running rampant throughout our culture – one such current example is the film and story which is the subject of our review right here, The Rite. I can recall seeing the teaser trailers for this and being immediately drawn in – the teasers suggested a demonic possession of a Catholic priest, and the last time this element was explored, George C. Scott was portraying “Kinderman” the detective in 1990’s The Exorcist III. Let’s back up a bit – for those fans who remember, 1973’s The Exorcist concludes with Father Damien Karras (played by Jason Miller) throwing himself out of Linda Blair’s bedroom window after becoming possessed by “Pazuzu,” the Iraqi demon which took control of Blair’s character. After a concluding exorcism kills one priest, Father Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow), the demon is confronted by an enraged Karras, who is immediately taken over by Pazuzu after a confrontation. We are meant to believe Karras has died from the plummet down that long flight of stairs outside Blair’s window, in a desperate attempt to save himself from the torment of possession, but Warner Bros. executives – after absolutely bombing with one of the worst films ever made, Exorcist II: The Heretic – decided to continue the Exorcist franchise with Exorcist III in 1990, which was based on the book Legion by William Peter Blatty (the same author of the first Exorcist). Blatty went on to direct the film, which suggested that Father Karras (again played by Jason Miller) didn’t actually die from the fall in the first film, but rather had his brain cells regenerated by the demon within him, and whose body is now being “shared” with the soul of a long-dead serial killer, The Gemini (played by Brad Douriff). The conclusion of the film – actually tacked on by Blatty due to Warner Bros. demanding an exorcism sequence be added to the script – portrays a Georgetown priest, Father Morning (played by Nicol Williamson), performing an exorcism on the still-possessed Father Karras in a padded cell within a Georgetown hospital. The notion of a priest exorcising another possessed priest was interesting and unnerving, yet I don’t recall this being explored since Exorcist III until The Rite came along.
What I have a problem with as it pertains to The Rite is just how much was “adapted” from this so-called “true case” – the film, directed by Mikael Hafstrom, was supposedly based on a book by Matt Baglio entitled The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which tells the story of Father Gary Thomas of San Jose, California who traveled to Rome to learn “modern exorcism techniques” as demanded by the Vatican of many churches in America. The problem comes in as it pertains to Hafstrom’s interpretation of the novel, wherein Father Thomas’ name has been changed to “Father Michael Kovak” (portrayed by Colin O'Donoghue) and Anthony Hopkins’ “Father Lucas” character, it is suggested in Hafstrom’s film, becomes possessed while mentoring O’Donoghue’s character. According to the book, Father Thomas does travel to the Vatican to study modern exorcism, and he meets the counterpart, supposedly, of Hopkins’ character – but the film version strays too far by suggesting Hopkins’ “Father Lucas” becomes demonically possessed by a rather nasty demon while he’s advising O’Donoghue’s “Father Kovak” character on exorcism matters (of course “Kovak” is supposed to be based on the real “Father Thomas”). Did this “possession” actually take place while Father Thomas was in Rome, studying the rites of exorcism? How violent did it become – to the point, like in the film version, that Hopkins’ character while under the influence of the demon, spews rhetoric like ”Nice [well, you know], huh?" I just cannot believe that – and that’s what I don’t like about these so-called “based on true events” films that have populated the shelves of our local Blockbusters and swept into our multiplexes.
Colin O’Donoghue – in a horribly sleep inducing, haphazard and downright lazy performance – attempts to stretch his Irish acting wings in The Rite by portraying Michael Kovak, a quiet, hush-spoken kid living in his family’s funeral home along with his father, played by the normally awesome Rutger Hauer. His mother, and Hauer’s wife, died some time ago when Kovak was a boy, and something hasn’t been quite right since then – Hauer’s infatuation with the dead bodies in their funeral home is downright creepy, and Michael finds himself wanting to get out of the family business by becoming a priest, something, as he tells a friend over beers one night as they sit outside a local bar, members of his family do when the only other choice is to become a mortician. Attending courses in religion, Michael is on his way to becoming part of the clergy but decides he doesn’t possess – no pun intended – the faith necessary to carry on. When he submits an email explaining his resignation to his superiors, an event changes the course of his life – as one of his mentors is crossing the street on a rainy night to talk to him about his resignation, Michael witnesses the man fall, which sets off a chain reaction leading to a horrible accident that ends with a girl on a bicycle being struck and killed by a van. Before the girl dies, she begs Michael – after seeing his clergy collar around his neck – to pray for her soul and recite the Lord’s Prayer, lying crippled and helpless in the middle of the street. As his superior also lies injured, grasping a broken limb, he watches through the rain as Michael portrays strong leadership skills and an uncanny ability to remain calm while softening someone’s death in his arms.
Deciding to refuse Michael’s resignation, his senior priest at the college who witnessed and blames himself now for the accident in the street nights before tells Michael about a course being offered at the Vatican in Rome which is reteaching the rite of exorcism. He believes Michael would be the perfect fit for a future exorcist and off Michael goes. Once in Rome, his disbelief in the occult, possession or the devil is at odds with the course teacher, Father Xavier, who sends him to meet Father Lucas (a chubby and puffy looking Hopkins) to provide him the proof he requires. Upon meeting Hopkins’ Lucas character, Michael is exposed to an impromptu exorcism on a pregnant girl who comes to Lucas’ residence on a seemingly routine basis for this “treatment” along with her aunt. Confined to a chair in an empty upstairs room of Lucas’ house, the girl is confronted by Lucas’ onslaught of exorcism techniques to draw the demon within her out to the surface – what follows is the usual representation we have seen in more modern exorcism/possession films, without the glowing yellow eyes and rotating heads of The Exorcist and instead the gyrating, moaning, seething drivel from the so-called possessed girl that doesn’t even seem to get a reaction out of O’Donoghue’s character. Only when the girl, under the influence of the demon inside her, makes a reference to one of the bodies he had prepared for burial back in Chicago (seething in an inhuman voice while looking wide-eyed at him "Remember the fat little...?") does Michael begin to question what is going on here.
A big problem, thus far, with The Rite is the actual acting and sometimes ridiculous performances by Anthony Hopkins as this priest who is seasoned in exorcisms – at times, it seems like Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter character from Silence of the Lambs is breaking through, although his physical appearance is drastically different here than it was in The Lambs. Where he was skinny and upright in that classic, here Hopkins appears fat, bloated and ill – of course age will do this to us, but something doesn’t quite look right with him. Further, sometimes he takes his portrayal of Father Lucas just too far, with sniveling dialogue delivery that mixes Silence of the Lambs with his sarcastic performance in Fracture; some of the dialogue is just ridiculous, such as when he says to O’Donoghue’s character ”Okay…well, that’s it…” upon concluding an exorcism while looking at his watch. There were times I believed in Hopkins’ portrayal as Father Lucas, then other times when I just didn’t buy him as a renowned exorcist. In fact, I think he did a better job as Thor’s father in the comic film adaptation than in this. This is to say nothing of O’Donoghue’s performance in The Rite, which was just atrocious – I understand the filmmakers were going for a reserved, quiet non-believer in Michael Kovak’s character, but O’Donoghue’s performance was beyond boring. This guy sleepwalks through this role, and the concluding exorcism sequence offers no excitement whatsoever by his delivery, and should have, once the kid “regains his faith” at the very end.
As time with Hopkins’ Father Lucas passes, and Michael is exposed to another case of possession beyond the girl – who ends up dying at a rundown hospital after an attempted exorcism at her bedside by Lucas leads to the demon consuming both her and her unborn baby – events begin to get more supernatural, and the film spirals from a study in an exorcism student at the Vatican to a strange mix of Constantine and other occult films which featured frogs, bugs and various other “signs” that signal the onslaught of evil. Hopkins and O’Donoghue visit a boy who is supposedly visited by the devil, and after “blessing” the boy’s pillow, Hopkins’ character extracts an oddly-colored frog from within it, exclaiming that is the demon, or devil. However, the boy has extremely vicious, callous markings on his body which he claims was made by a “red eyed mule” that visits him and tells him to kill himself. Things really begin to get strange when O’Donoghue learns his father (Hauer) has died back in the U.S., and that the boy was told by the devil that this priest’s father was about to die before it happened. In the middle of all this, Michael meets a cute journalist (Alice Braga) in his exorcism class who is covering the course to write an article. Intrigued by the stories of Father Lucas, she tags along with Michael who seems to be coming apart since his father’s death, seeing visions of red-eyed horses, hearing demonic whispers and seeing apparitions that appear to be his father floating past him in certain places. However, the script gets real fuzzy and haphazard after the pregnant girl dies in the hospital, as the filmmakers suggest Hopkins’ Father Lucas character somehow, someway gets possessed himself sometime after that last exorcism he performs on her. Also confusingly, it’s suggested that Michael needs to see Lucas after these visions he has been having and realizing the connections between his father, the boy who knew about his father’s death and other random events – going to visit Hopkins’ Lucas character, O’Donoghue and Braga find him acting very strange, sitting in the rain by himself, mumbling and trembling, and eventually, they learn that he has indeed fallen under a demonic presence himself. It’s never made clear when this took place, or why it did so quickly, and the plot’s pace suffers for it, as before we know it, Hopkins’ character is tied up to a chair in his house and O’Donoghue is forced to perform an exorcism on his own mentor.
Where do I even begin in terms of the prerequisite concluding exorcism sequence? Hopkins begins to speak in demonic, dark voices, and of course, in the spirit of the vulgarity spewed in The Exorcist, throws in a couple of words in reference to Braga. Eventually, the scene goes the way of all exorcism portrayals – Hopkins’ face contorts and changes, his eyes becoming a fiery red, while the demonic voice becomes more pronounced and more threatening. I suppose the “point” of the sequence is to portray Michael finding his lost faith to confront this demon and free Father Lucas of it, but the way in which O’Donoghue goes about this is so unconvincing – I mean, there’s no regaining of the faith and holy strength wherein O’Donoghue’s character is suddenly smitten with rage and religious fortitude, challenging the demon in this battle. Instead, Michael calmly and with a tremble in his voice performs the rite of exorcism, eventually driving the entity from Lucas’ body – but not before we’re treated to a chilling sequence depicting Hopkins being contorted painfully into varying positions by the possessing demon.
The final frames of the film are the most baffling to me; it’s often said that possession victims don’t really know what has happened to them, but in the morning following his own exorcism, Hopkins’ Lucas character calmly walks out into the sunshine from his house, hands in pants pockets, and addresses O’Donoghue’s Michael as if he was fully aware of what transpired and almost as if this was a pre-determined “test” for him; the feel of this end sequence was very odd. Of course, Michael has finally found his faith, and the very conclusion of the film portrays him listening to a parishioner in a confessional.
If it seems like I was bashing The Rite, I really wasn’t – as said, I liked the film enough to buy the Blu-ray, which arrived in my mailbox just a couple of days ago. It was far from the worst film ever made about this subject, and in many ways, it was one of the more respectable, restrained variants. It’s just that some aspects seemed strange to me, notably Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of this “renowned radical exorcist” living outside the Vatican in Rome, talking to his cats, as well as O’Donoghue’s performance as the non-believing student who is forced to find faith to perform an exorcism of his own. O’Donoghue’s acting, in my opinion, was atrocious and sleep-inducing. The other major problem I had was with the suggestion that Father Lucas himself became possessed – I’m not quite convinced that the real clergyman his character was based on actually was under demonic influence based on my research on this story, but I can’t say concretely without reading the novel.
VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
Warner Bros., in conjunction with New Line Cinema, delivers The Rite on Blu-ray in an effective 2.40:1 widescreen encode, if not an altogether downright stunner. Much of the images in this film are in dingy, rather subdued lighting situations, and the transfer holds up in the black level department well enough. A good deal of the transfer collapses into ultimate softness, but this is undoubtedly due to photographic procedures and environmental elements; a somewhat gauzy, hazy look coats the image for a good deal of the running time, but closeup sequences of faces and clothing exhibit wonderful detail and depth, particularly during a flashback funeral scene, where Rutger Hauer’s character stands out amongst dazzling, razor-sharp elements within the sequence.
The biggest problem I had with the Blu-ray transfer of The Rite – of which I am reviewing the single-disc, “stripped down” version which does not contain a slipcase, nor any extras save for deleted scenes – was the fact that for most of the running time, the transfer had a very DVD-like look to it, with a sometimes distracting and aforementioned softness which I didn’t care for. However, this was most likely due to stylistic decisions on behalf of the filmmakers, and not a fault of Warner’s transfer process. In any event, this won’t be one to dazzle guests of your home theater with.
AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
The now-prerequisite DTS-HD Master Audio track accompanying The Rite on Blu-ray, in a 5.1 arrangement, fared better than the video – while sometimes hushed in certain places when the dialogue gets quiet, the track boasted wallops of hard-hitting LFE to accompany supernatural events in the film – such as Hopkins’ possession – and decent environmental fill. This was not, by any means, an “explosive” audio track, as aside from some random elements like rainfall and the scurrying of cockroaches in one hospital scene nothing really made it into the surrounds, but the creativity in the subtlety of these elements by the design team was impressive.
Some demonic voices and wraparound whispers, notably in the final exorcism sequence, bounced from one rear channel to the other effectively, creating a creepy atmosphere, as Hopkins’ character seethed and verbally tormented the priest and journalist in his company.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATIONS:
The Rite falls into that weird classification of not a bad film, but not a superb one either; for those who enjoy the subject matter, as I do – that is, demonic possession and the study of exorcisms – this is definitely entertaining. Perhaps Hopkins was a strange choice for Father Lucas, but he doesn’t necessarily bomb in the role either, although it seems like the other actors in the film are definitely playing second fiddle to his performance. As for the logic to the authenticity of it all, my research has shown that the priest Colin O’Donoghue portrays did in fact travel from California to the Vatican to study modern exorcism – but the rest is very vague and hazy, like the events of The Fourth Kind in Alaska, wherein we’re not really sure or overtly convinced that the priest Hopkins portrays was ever possessed by a demonic force himself, nor if the real-life priest O’Donoghue portrays actually “found his faith” to perform an exorcism on him. I think that entire part is hokey and didn’t truly happen the way Hafstrom says it did.
While of course your mileage may vary, The Rite was a buy for me.
I realize this title has been out for some time now, but I’d look forward to hearing everyone’s viewpoints on this film, and whether or not you believe in the possession theory suggested.
I’ll be reviewing Little Fockers and eventually I Am Number Four next!