[Screen It]

(2000) (Winona Ryder, Ben Chaplin) (R)

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Horror: A devout woman, a former victim of demonic possession, tries to save a man who's been earmarked to become the Antichrist.
Maya Larkin (WINONA RYDER) is a young, devout woman who works with the Catholic Church in assisting Father Lareaux (JOHN HURT) and deacon John Townsend (ELIAS KOTEAS) in performing exorcisms of those who are possessed by demonic spirits. A former victim herself, Maya and her team arrive at a psychiatric hospital to perform such a ritual on Henry Birdson (JOHN DIEHL), a convicted mass murderer.

The results leave Lareaux incapacitated and Maya attempting to decipher a numerical code that Birdson had been compulsively penning. When she finally does so, the code reveals that the next victim of possession will be Peter Kelson (BEN CHAPLIN), an author and self-proclaimed cynic of evil with a capital E, who writes about mass murderers such as his latest subject, George Viznik (BRAD GREENQUIST).

Peter, who was raised along with his brother, William (W. EARL BROWN), after their parents' deaths, by their uncle, Father James (PHILIP BAKER HALL), doesn't believe in any of what he thinks his pure nonsense. Nonetheless, he doesn't tell his girlfriend, Claire Van Owen (SARAH WYNTER), although she gets the hint when someone tries to kill him one evening, proclaiming that the time of transformation has come.

With friend and local detective Mike Smythe (JOHN BEASLEY) investigating that incident as well as Maya's background, Peter tries to get on with his life. Yet, as strange events begin occurring all around him, it appears that perhaps he is earmarked to become the Antichrist. As such, he and Maya then race against time in an effort to make sure that doesn't happen.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
For anyone who's ever worked in retail where perishable or seasonal items are sold, it's common knowledge that the oldest products are always moved to the front of the display case. That's because of the hope that they'll sell before they expire or go out of fashion, thus reducing the store's possible financial loss if they'd have to trash such items.

Of course, in Hollywood, films don't expire, although the failed DIVX home video format attempted to introduce that concept to renters. Case in point is the rest of the home video industry and TV broadcasts where movies live on forever, as well as the occasional re-release of films into theaters. For instance, the reissue of "The Exorcist" is out-grossing many of its new siblings despite being more than twenty-five years old.

Simply put, the major Hollywood studios can rarely afford to eat their films and thus swallow the huge production costs, even if their product is bad or has missed the crest of whatever craze it was trying to capitalize on. As such, the studios usually send such films straight to video or cable TV. On occasion, however, and for a variety of reasons, they'll keep certain films sitting on the shelf for months or even years while the studio heads (often ones who replaced those who gave the green light to the troubled project) try to figure out the three Ws of marketing: What to do with the film and when and where to release it.

While we may never know the real truth behind the delayed release of New Line Cinema's "Lost Souls," it's reportedly been sitting on the shelf for well more than a year, caught up in some sort of internal struggle that prevented its release. With Halloween approaching - usually a good, but short release period for horror films - the studio has now finally decided to liberate the film.

Yet, with "The Exorcist" still churning away at the box office - but probably no longer churning stomachs like it once did - and the upcoming "Blair Witch" sequel serving as another temporal bookend around this release, things don't look rosy for this stylish, but ultimately mediocre film.

Besides the re-release of William Friedkin's seminal picture, it seems like we've been inundated of recent with films about demonic possession, the Devil and/or the coming of the Antichrist. From "Bless the Child" to "Stigmata" and "End of Days," that horror sub-genre has received its share of recent attention, but all of that results in the lessening of the impact of each subsequent film.

That's certainly the case with this release that marks the long-delayed directorial debut of Oscar winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List"). While he gives the film an effectively gritty, grainy and decidedly monochromatic look, he can't overcome what ultimately turns out to be a middling script courtesy of producer turned screenwriter Pierce Gardner.

Perhaps part of the film's problem is that too many hands and trips to the salvage booth (a.k.a. the editing suite) have resulted in the story feeling too lose and disjointed. That's often the case when various people try to fix what's considered a problem film and this picture shows signs that that might have been the case here.

What was probably a larger part of the film - the whole bit about Maya being a recovering possession victim - is reduced to a quick flashback that leaves the viewer to assume and/or guess about the details regarding that back-story. The same holds true for the subplot involving the film's two mass murderers as it feels as if additional footage about them ended up on the cutting room floor rather than in the film.

As far as the basic plot is concerned - regarding Maya trying to convince Peter that he's the pending Antichrist and then doing what she can to help him - it's basically serviceable and does drive the story forward. Nonetheless, it's otherwise a by the numbers supernatural thriller that surprisingly isn't that thrilling save for a few spooky moments. What are supposed to be shocking revelations are either relatively tame or varyingly absurd, and most of the scary moments are simply textbook examples of the "let's split up in this dark house and turn on as few lights as possible" variety.

The film's biggest problem is that the supernatural elements - the possessions and exorcisms - aren't particularly effective or scary, especially when compared with what occurs in the "The Exorcist." In that film, evil and the Devil were personified by the contrast between the young and innocent girl played by Linda Blair and that creepy, otherworldly voice and attitude that emanated from her.

Here, such creepiness is relegated to the background, which turns out to be a huge error since we're supposed to worry about Peter experiencing the same fate. Perhaps the filmmakers assumed we'd fill in such blanks, but the stakes never feel that high regarding such matters and the film suffers accordingly.

Another problem is the way in which the characters are drawn and then portrayed. In short, they're neither interesting nor that sympathetic, thus resulting in the viewer not having anyone to lead them through the film. As a result, while we witness what occurs, we don't really care or worry about the characters played by Winona Ryder ("Autumn in New York," "Girl, Interrupted") or Ben Chaplin ("The Thin Red Line," "The Truth About Cats and Dogs"), particularly since they're so bland.

John Hurt ("Midnight Express," "The Elephant Man") is present as the resident exorcist, but doesn't make nearly the impression that Max Von Sydow did in "The Exorcist," while Philip Baker Hall ("Rules of Engagement," "Magnolia") and Sarah Wynter ("Farwell, My Love," the upcoming "The Sixth Day") can't do much with their respective roles of uncle and girlfriend, especially when the latter inexplicably disappears for most of the film's second half. Meanwhile, John Diehl ("Anywhere But Here," "The Hi-Lo Country") appears as an evil mass murderer, but is pretty much reduced to a standard, knife-wielding psycho killer.

Overall, the film starts off with a halfway decent, if rather familiar premise, but unfortunately doesn't turn into anything special. While Kaminski's heavily stylized and somewhat old-fashioned film thankfully stands above and apart from the first-time efforts of MTV-weaned directors, all of the bleak, highly contrasted lighting and monochromatic color schemes can't overcome what turns out to be a less than engaging or interesting story. Occasionally spooky but otherwise nothing special, "Lost Souls" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 10, 2000 / Posted October 13, 2000

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