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Only the Devil May Care

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000

   


    'Lost Souls' Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin are two souls lost in a mediocre horror movie. (New Line)
The Devil needs a new agent. He's not getting the parts he used to get, and his special kind of chant-driven, candle-flickering, priest-tweaking mumbo-jumbo no longer does the hoodoo or the voodoo it once did so well.

His Fiery Scratchiness is omnipresent in "Lost Souls," which might otherwise be called "Rosemary's Baby Grows Up and Gets a Cool Apartment Downtown." He's there in the eyes of the conspirators as they guide a young man toward his Hellish Destiny as the Antichrist; he's there to turn a math professor into a family-slaying geek who scribbles numbers when not slaughtering his children. He's there in the phantasmagoric apparitions he throws at his opponents, of which the most appalling is a public bathroom's toilets backing up in a sludgy but relentless tide of you-know-what.

But mainly he's there in the spooky cinematography by Mauro Fiore, which is no doubt controlled by first-time director Janusz Kaminski, who was himself a cinematographer, most notably for Steven Spielberg in "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List."

As a director, Kaminski is still a fabulous cinematographer. The pleasures of "Lost Souls" are strictly atmospheric, which is to say photographic. It's set in a bleak greenish world that resembles Warsaw in the late winter, before the invention of indoor plumbing and steam heat; you feel the chill everywhere, and in the film, that sense of numbing coldness is the surest indicator of Old Cloven-Hoofs' interest in the events.

The story, unfortunately, never comes close to living up to the clammy sense of evil in the background. It's a loose reassembly of plot points from "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist" that never achieves the emotional intensity of either, despite the ethereal presence of Winona Ryder, with her dark almond eyes and stunning adult beauty. It's probably not enough for you, but it was quite enough for me, thank you very much, to watch Ryder's moody gloamings in Fiore's moody gloom.

But you people demand a story, don't you! Ha! Once again, this is where it all comes apart! Serves you right! Ryder plays Maya Larkin, who appears to be the secular member of a New York area diocese's Beelzebub-busting unit (who you gonna call?). After this team goes to a state asylum to perform an exorcism (the great Brit actor John Hurt plays the approximate part Max Von Sydow did in "The Exorcist") on the violent math professor (John Diehl), Maya discovers under his doodled gibberish a numerical code and manages to decipher it. It's pretty tough, something like A=1, B=2, C=3. It convinces her that the Antichrist is approaching in the form of mild-mannered Peter Kelson. The problem is: He doesn't even know he's the Antichrist. He thinks he's a best-selling author of true-crime books.

It's up to Maya to convince him elsewise, which she does first by cajoling him with her sexual wiles and her beauty and then by simply having a breakdown in his presence. Then, of course, she falls in love with him.

It helps that Peter Kelson is played by the British actor Ben Chaplin behind a nice American accent, and that Chaplin is genuinely likable, even as his character's incredulity turns to mere disbelief and finally to belief. It helps also that he and Ryder look as much alike as siblings – they're both pale-faced, wren-boned slips of people with dark, dark eyes and a suggestion of fragile neuroticism – which also helps the movie achieve its sense of visual discordance.

But the movie is built around a conspiracy so transparent that only the dimmest among you won't see it coming three reels ahead, and you're never sure quite what's at stake: There's no evidence of the Devil's power, of what he'll do to the world if unleashed upon it in full flesh. Maybe he'll just make dogs and cats live together. I could argue, in fact, that he took over some time ago; we just haven't noticed it yet.

And, of course, the usual horror movie idiocies litter the film. If the Devil can make toilets back up, why can't he protect his advocates in minor physical tussles? And why does he compel his servant to leave a code where the one person in the universe capable of understanding it will certainly find it? Duh, is he that dumb? And where did Peter Kelson's brother learn to snap a man's neck like a Green Beret on a sentry-elimination mission and why do the cops pay it no mind at all? At the point where the movie interfaces with the reality we all know, it consistently unravels.

And worse: It turns on killing someone for what he or she will do, not what he has done. We're supposed to applaud this act as heroic, when it's really coldblooded murder, pure and simple. Like Stephen King's appalling "Dead Zone," we have to accept, in the utter absence of empirical evidence, that someone will be bad enough in the future to deserve termination in the present. Not pleasant. Not right. Actually, kind of sickening.

"Lost Souls" (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and mild gore, backed-up toilets and extra-loud chanting.

 

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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