You know what isn’t terrifying? Mules. Also not terrifying: mules with red eyes and baleful expressions. Try as The Rite might, it cannot make its demonic mule—a centerpiece of a would-be nightmarish hallucination sequence—frightening. Even an Italian boy whimpering in terror about “il mulo!” while revealing hoof-shaped bruises on his chest and back can’t seal the deal. Kudos to The Rite for thinking outside the usual goat/pentagram/black-candles box for its satanic imagery, but is a mule really the best it could manage?
Then again, maybe the film is just telling it like it is. The Rite is bookended by text assuring viewers that it’s inspired by true events, and that the inspiration for the hero played by the Josh Hartnett-esque Colin O’Donoghue currently works as an exorcist outside Chicago, making him one of the few Vatican-approved exorcists in America. He’s one of a woefully small number, by the film’s reckoning, and The Rite sometimes plays like a recruitment effort. Surely in this security-conscious age, the U.S. deserves better protection against “the devil’s foot soldiers.”
Having enlisted in the seminary to get out of a family mortuary business headed by dad Rutger Hauer (one of several colorful character actors underserved by the material), O’Donoghue plans to leave school before taking his final vows, his years of study having done little to reinforce his shaky faith. In an attempt to change his mind, Father Superior Toby Jones sends him to Rome to study the rite of exorcism. There, he eventually hooks up with an unconventional Welsh exorcist (Anthony Hopkins). Hopkins brings a much-needed wry humor to his early scenes, talking about casting out devils with a twinkle in his eye, and taking a cell-phone call mid-ritual. But once the demon plaguing a pregnant teen jumps ship and the exorcist becomes the exorcee, Hopkins starts tearing into scenes as if trying to teach that upstart bitch Linda Blair a lesson or two.
About The Exorcist: At one point, Hopkins’ character references the film with a knowing wink, which director Mikael Håfström (1408) takes as permission to rip it off shamelessly, giving the demon a voice like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight doing a Mercedes McCambridge impression, and amping up the sound of creaking bones to an earsplitting volume. But apart from a couple of cheap jolts, he has no new tricks, and the PG-13 rating caps the blasphemy at words like “slut” and “kissy-lips.” It’s an extremely literal-minded and reverent horror movie—almost appropriate for a Catholic-school day trip—but never especially scary. Unless mules terrify you.