“What’s wrong, Father?” Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder) inquires of a priest played by Brian Reddy about halfway through this new would-be apocalyptic thriller. Father Frank, you see, has wandered into her room looking decidedly grim and worried, having just learned of the death of one of their anti-Satan associates. But by this point the movie has become so absurd and tedious that you almost expect the cleric to reply, “You mean besides the script?”
It’s hardly surprising that the release of the second feature from actress Meg Ryan’s production company (the first was the dismal 1995 farce “French Kiss”) was so long delayed; “Lost Souls” has been on the shelf so many months that it threatened to become one of the ever-more numerous “Lost Movies.” But it’s even more peculiar that it should be released almost immediately after the awful “Bless the Child,” with which it shares a multitude of plot elements. Indeed, the flick could easily be retitled “Bless the Lapsed Catholic Writer Whose Speciality Is Serial Killers and Who’s About to Become the Antichrist.”
The screenplay by Pierce Gardner, a hopelessly contrived and often incoherent hodgepodge blending together not only elements of “Child” but of “Stigmata,” “End of Days” and “Rosemary’s Baby” as well, focuses on author Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin), who specializes in penning pseudo-intellectual tomes concerning mass murderers in which, being a decided unbeliever despite the fact that his uncle (Philip Baker Hall) is a priest, he denies the existence of, as he says in a phrase Donald Pleasence might once have intoned, Pure Evil. Kelson is, however, soon confronted by Larkin, a young woman who was apparently once possessed as a child and who now works alongside exorcist Father Lareaux (John Hurt), who’s fallen afoul of Vatican authorities (a theme typical in such flicks). She and the good father have just conducted a failed exorcism on a killer ensconced in a psychiatrist hospital–an exercise that has nearly devastated the cleric–and the winsome gal does some research on her own indicating that Kelson will be the devil’s next target, indeed the linchpin of a demonic plot to initiate the last of days. Before long Peter and Myra are working together to uncover the truth about the author’s past and foil Satan’s dastardly plan.
From a theological perspective “Lost Souls” is blasphemous mumbo-jumbo, an amalgam of crackpot religious themes devoid of any serious understanding of Catholic doctrine or practice. But, more significant in the present context, it’s also an absolutely terrible movie, sloppily constructed and poorly executed. It marks the first helming attempt of master DP Janusz Kaminski, whose work on “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” was so impressive. As a director, he shows himself a fine cinematographer: he knows how to frame shots and composes some sequences nicely, uses a palette of dark-hued browns and reds to give the images the desired melancholy effect, and occasionally does intriguing things with light and shade. But he exhibits no sense of pacing–many sequences run on far too long, and others seem curiously attenuated (at one point Maya and Peter watch serial killer John Diehl, who’s inexplicably gotten free of the hospital and tracked them down, go into convulsions, apparently being transformed into a beast, and in the next shot the two are in their SUV driving down a road without any explanation of what’s transpired in the meantime). Nor does he succeed in imposing any sense of logic or credibility on the choppy plot. Kaminski doesn’t demonstrate any skill in dealing with actors, either. Ryder is generically nervous as the religious Nancy Drew figure, and Chaplin is as colorless as most of the settings. But the leads admittedly pale in awfulness beside two old pros, Hurt and Hall, who are forced to leer and mug shamelessly in their nutty clerical roles. Their ridiculous portrayals of priests–like that of poor Ian Holm in “Stigmata” or Rod Steiger in “End of Days”–might be construed as grounds for excommunication. Happily Christianity is a faith of forgiveness.
“Lost Souls” concludes with a somber twist that has the virtue of avoiding the obligatory upbeat ending required of virtually all pictures nowadays (a need which apparently even extended to the decision to tack on a happy close to the recent reissue of “The Exorcist”). But apart from that major miscalculation, the lengthened version of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic emphatically proves that there is a way of pulling off this kind of mystical-religious claptrap successfully onscreen. That still-potent screamer certainly points up everything that’s wrong with this feeble, pointless imitation, which is being released on Friday the 13th but will surely have exited multiplexes well before Halloween.