“There aren’t levitating beds, spinning heads or pea-green soup,” Father Gary Thomas said to me in a recent phone conversation.
Father Thomas is the real-life California exorcist whose training experiences with a veteran exorcist in Rome were documented in journalist Matt Baglio’s 2009 book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. The new supernatural horror/thriller film The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins as a veteran exorcist named
Father Lucas, is loosely inspired by Father Thomas’ experiences.
The Rite is also the latest in a long line of Hollywood films in the exorcism-movie subgenre inaugurated by William Friedkin’s 1973 landmark film The Exorcist —the movie famous for levitating beds, spinning heads and pea-green soup.
A few recent films, including Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, have taken the genre in a more restrained, realistic direction, and The Rite continues this trend, offering the most realistic, orthodox Hollywood depiction of exorcism to date. Where Emily Rose conflated months of exorcisms into a single dramatic episode, The Rite shows that battling possession can last weeks, months or even longer.
Psychological or Spiritual?
Not that Father Lucas’ trainee, a skeptical seminarian named Michael Kovak (Irish actor Colin O’Donoghue, a practicing Catholic), is convinced that the troubled people who come to Father Lucas are possessed at all. Michael’s impulse is to turn to a psychiatrist rather than an exorcist. The Rite thus continues a theme running through a number of recent exorcism films: Is it spiritual, or is it all in your head?
The same question was raised by the real-life case of Anneliese Michel, a young Bavarian woman whose tragic death inspired both The Exorcism of Emily Rose and a German film, Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006). Neither film definitively answers the question. Derrickson takes a forensic approach, examining the evidence, pro and con, while subjectively depicting the troubled girl’s experiences with effective horror imagery. Schmid uses a quasi-documentary style, focusing on his protagonist’s psychological vulnerabilities and obsessions.
This corresponds to Father Thomas’ experiences. “Most people who come to see me from the diocese have issues of mental health,” he said. “A lot of people who are dealing with mental-health stuff come thinking that this will fix them up.”
Because of this, Father Thomas works with a team that includes a doctor, a psychologist and a psychiatrist to help identify people whose problems are psychological rather than spiritual.
In the film, though, Michael’s doubts notwithstanding, Father Lucas never sees anyone whose problems don’t turn out to be spiritual, and in the end, it seems that the devil is behind all the phenomena in the film. Is it a flaw that the movie offers no control case, that it seems to see the devil everywhere?
“You have a point,” Father Thomas conceded. “One of the negative consequences is that a lot more people will interpret their troubles as demonically rooted. I deal with that now. I guess people are coming to a movie about exorcism, and that’s what they expect to see. But you have a point.”
Exorcisms on Film
Certainly The Exorcist dramatically illustrated that movies can affect how people interpret their experiences. After its 1973 release, interest in exorcism skyrocketed in both Catholic and Protestant milieus. The Exorcist is the source or channel of much of our culture’s awareness of and ideas about possession and exorcism; it’s also the pivotal link between the Catholic-inflected piety of Golden Age Hollywood and the demonic world of latter-day horror.
The form of exorcism familiar from The Exorcist is that of the Roman Ritual of 1614, which remained unchanged until it was updated in 1999 and again in 2004.
The film’s depiction both of the rite and of the phenomenon of possession, though sensationalized and exaggerated, is fairly authentic. Notable elements include the demon’s resistance to being exorcised and other ambiguities. For example, the young victim writhes in pain when a priest sprinkles her with water — though it is
not blessed holy water. This leads the priest to doubt whether she is really possessed —which, of course, is the point: The devil is a deceiver, deliberately casting doubt on the reality of the possession, the effectiveness of the Church’s arsenal, or both.
Exorcism, of course, didn’t begin with the 1614 ritual — and movie exorcism didn’t begin with The Exorcist. Casting out demons goes back to the ministry of Jesus, and in the movies, it goes back to the Jesus films of cinema’s silent origins. The 1912 film From the Manger to the Cross depicts Jesus healing a demoniac.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent The King of Kings opens with Jesus dramatically delivering Mary Magdalene of her seven demons, here representing the seven deadly sins.
Although the devil and satanic cults surfaced in films prior to The Exorcist in films like Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out — which shows demonic manifestations banished by the use of holy water and crosses — possession and efforts to cast out demons were rare. One notable exorcism scene takes place at the climax of Edward Dmytryk’s 1962 biopic The Reluctant Saint, which features Ricardo Montalban as a Franciscan friar attempting to exorcise St. Joseph of Cupertino — and naturally failing, because the saint isn’t possessed!
By the late 1960s, the pious certainties of Golden Age Hollywood had crumbled, and a jaded, sophisticated ennui prevailed. Mia Farrow, carrying the devil’s child in Rosemary’s Baby, flips through the Easter 1966 issue of Time magazine with the cover question “Is God Dead?” … and by the end neither God nor his agents has intervened, and the devil is victorious. The Omen, made after The Exorcist, likewise ends with heaven essentially defaulting, while hell triumphs.
Even when the slews of Exorcist imitators embraced the war of good and evil, they seldom approached their inspiration for authenticity or quality. A 1972 Italian horror film, Lisa and the Devil, was liberally reworked for its 1975 U.S. release, with added scenes of pea-soup vomiting and clerical chanting (and retitled House of Exorcism). The 1974 blaxsploitation flick Abby brought a syncretistic bent, blending Christian and West African Yoruban religious elements. Amityville II: The Possession added a possession/exorcism twist to its predecessor’s tale of demonic terrorism — directly ripping off the climactic twist of Friedkin’s film.
Like these knockoffs, Exorcist sequels failed theologically as well as artistically to match the original. Exorcist II: The Heretic floated a number of bizarre ideas: The Catholic Church’s leadership distances itself from belief in the existence of Satan, while the late Father Merrin seems to have been posthumously transformed into a New Age disciple of the censured Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin. In The Exorcist III, the demon of the first two films takes further revenge against Father Merrin by reanimating his body with the soul of a murderer!
Even when these post-Exorcist possession films retained the Catholic trappings of Friedkin’s film, the religious vision of the original was largely lost. Rather than spiritual warfare, exorcism was depicted in essentially magical terms.
Only Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist even attempts to match the spirit of the original. Directed by Paul Schrader (who wrote the screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ), it recounts Father Merrin’s first encounter with the demon in Kenya, where archaeologists unearth a fifth-century Byzantine church built as a prison for the demon. Schrader’s pensive, theological approach didn’t match studio expectations, though, and the film was reworked by Renny Harlin as a more typical horror show called Exorcist: The Beginning. Both versions were eventually released: Reny’s in 2005, Shrader’s in 2006.
Last year, the mockumentary The Last Exorcism offered a Blair Witch / Paranormal Activity-style spin on the material, with a disillusioned nondenominational pastor who no longer believes in God and agrees to participate in a documentary in order to expose exorcism as a sham. Unusual only for its non-Catholic milieu, it’s no more religiously curious than most films in the genre.
Genre Returns to Catholic Roots
The Rite, which returns the genre to its Catholic roots, is thoughtfully concerned with questions of faith and doubt, as well as discernment and spiritual warfare. Father Thomas is rightly pleased with its positive portrayal of the institutional Church; it’s about the most positive Hollywood portrayal of the Church that I can think of in decades, certainly in a supernatural thriller of this type.
As a movie, unfortunately, it doesn’t all work. There are some clichéd horror tropes, bits and pieces that don’t fit, and a few scenes that tip over into silliness. Despite these flaws, The Rite is a commendable film and one of the few films of its genre that offers real religious interest.
Note: The Rite includes depictions of demonic possession, a number of violent deaths, disturbing family themes, including a youthful trauma and references to incest, a few scenes of corpses in a mortuary, references to suicide, an obscenity and few profane and crass sexual remarks. Mature viewing.