Lost Souls (2000)
Directed by Janusz Kaminski
Cast: Winona Ryder, Ben Chaplin, John Hurt, Philip Baker Hall, Elias Koteas, Sarah Wynter, Alfre Woodard, John Diehl.
2000 94 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 14, 2000.
The "World-In-Jeopardy-By-Satan" genre has gone into overplay in the last couple years, offering viewers so many vague variations on the same subject that it has long-since grown tiresome. Acquiring a shooting gallery of pop-religious mumbo-jumbo, it seems present-day producers who grew up with the spooky likes of 1968's "Rosemary's Baby" and 1973's "The Exorcist" have no idea how to write a believable, involving story. Look no further than 1999's "Stigmata," 1999's "End of Days," and 2000's "Bless the Child" to find pure rubbish disguised as something more stylized and intellectual.
"Lost Souls," the directorial debut of brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (1999's "Saving Private Ryan"), is the latest entry in the "end of the world" cinematic sweepstakes, and, surprisingly enough, it is a stylish and purely adult psychological thriller that pays respect, rather than tarnishes, its worlds-of-old predecessors.
Winona Ryder stars as Maya Larkin, a Catholic school teacher who has devoted her life to religion and helping others ever since she was possessed by a demonic spirit several years before. As the film opens, she is called upon by Father Lereaux (John Hurt) to act as an assistant in an exorcism he plans to perform on family-man-turned-serial-killer Henry Birdson (John Diehl). Although they fail to save Henry, Maya does uncover a series of numbers Henry wrote, and after carefully decoding them, discovers the name of Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin), who happens to be a best-selling true-crime novelist living in Manhattan with his girlfriend (Sarah Wynter). It seems that the faithless Peter is set to become the antichrist on his 33rd-birthday and take over the world, even though he doesn't know it yet.
Moving at a deliberately slow pace, and free of any sort of MTV-style film cuts or false alarm scare sequences, "Lost Souls" is a refreshing throwback to the days when a horror film didn't have to rely on a mad slasher chasing teenagers around a house, or a cat jumping out of a closet, in order to be scary. That said, "Lost Souls" has its heart in the right place, but still isn't very frightening. Disturbing? Yes. The ingenious idea of an innocent man who gradually comes to find out that he will soon be transformed into the antichrist is cause for several thought-provoking, evocative notions, but the movie doesn't gain the momentum to become downright scary. In director Janusz Kaminski's attempt at making a horror picture that is somehow "above" all the other recent efforts, he has, perhaps, gone too far in the opposite direction, causing this film to be too glacial to be completely touching.
At 28-years-old, Winona Ryder (1999's "Girl, Interrupted") is still the same captivating presence that she has always been, and the ability she has to capture the screen every time she appears is quite remarkable. Ryder is earnest and likable as Maya Larkin, even when we, as an audience, are unsure if she is possibly going crazy herself, and she holds the film together even through its questionable patches. Meanwhile, Ben Chaplin (1998's "The Thin Red Line") starts off blandly, but becomes enthralling by the final act, as a man who can't quite believe the tragic things Maya tells him, but can't deny that some very strange things are occurring to him, as well. All supporting roles are filled by powerful veteran actors, none of which are given much material to work with: John Hurt (1998's "Love and Death on Long Island") is Father Lereaux; the incomparable Philip Baker Hall (1999's "Magnolia") is Peter's girlfriend's religious father; and Alfre Woodard appears unbilled as a strong-willed worker at the psychiatric ward where the possessed Henry Birdson resides.
For the majority of its 94-minute running time, "Lost Souls" left me wondering exactly where everything was going, and I feared it wouldn't add up to much, joining the rest of the recent ill-fated attempts at a religious-themed thriller. Moving slowly throughout and with few truly astounding scenes beforehand, the ending blindsided me. Without giving it away, what occurs is not at all what you would expect, yet it is really one of the few honest ways to conclude the story, downbeat or not. Its final scene is challenging and fairly equivocal, casting a whole new light on everything that had come before. By taking his times and building to a fateful climax, Kaminski has realized that the most riveting films are not those with non-stop action and a scare a minute, but the ones that ask for its audience to slowly get involved and open up their minds, in exchange for an ultimately rewarding experience. Kaminski may not hold a firm grip on the picture the whole way through, but he does conclude on an unexpectedly high note that questions life, faith, and one's mortality. In other words, fans of the recently reissued "The Exorcist" will be impressed. Fans of "Leprechaun in the Hood" will decidedly not be.
©2000 by Dustin Putman