Winona Ryder’s kohl- and shadow-blackened eyes are the most stunning special effect in Lost Souls. Her eyes are always large and gorgeous, of course, which means that accentuating them like this might seem like overkill. But in context, I must say that the effect is quite splendid, that context being yet another tedious hoo-boy-the-devil’s-among-us movie.
This isn’t to say that everything around her doesn’t look fabulous. Directed by the great Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (whose momentous work includes Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Lost World basically all the recent super-Spielberg films and oh yeah, Jerry Maguire), Lost Souls makes the most of its requisite locations. The church interiors, the rectories, the tiny cell-like apartments, the mental hospital wards, the city streets they all look like they’ve been dreamed up by a hugely derivative but very tasteful set designer who’s working with a decent budget. The light is golden and/or filtered gray (the kind where the dust particles become visible in shafts of light across plain wood floors), but most often just dark and squirmy, and when someone gets hold of a flashlight, well, stand back: Mulder and Scully have nothing on these guys. The architecture is also grandly creepy, not quite on the scale of Frankenstein’s castle and bat-filled belfries, but still working its urban milieu to a shadowy and harrowing perfection, which is enhanced by what look to be buckets of rain dumped on characters at every crucial-decision moment (and by the end of the film, these moments are coming fast and hard). And, it goes without saying, the rain tends to make Ryder’s pale and haunted countenance look even more pale and haunted, framed as it is by her dark, long, wet hair. And her eyes.. well, I’ve already extolled their virtues.
Winona Ryder, Ben Chaplin, Philip Baker Hall, Elias Koteas, Sarah Wynter, John Beasley
But you know what they say about judging books by their covers. For all these great surfaces, Lost Souls is pretty much a flat-liner. Industry gossip has it that it was on the shelf for more than a year, which means someone had serious doubts about it, and for a long time. It’s a grim irony that New Line decided to go ahead and release it, finally, right on the heels of the re-release of The Exorcist, which has everyone chatting nostalgically about how scared they were when they first saw it, and comparing it to all its many, many, variously enfeebled descendants, most recently, Arnold’s earnest End of Days (the Terminator and the Devil, mano-a-mano), Polanski and Depps’ silly The Ninth Gate (at least Frank Langhella looked like he was having a good time), and Kim Basinger’s woeful Bless the Child (and frankly, there’s no telling what possesses her when she makes script choices). The release of Lost Souls (which lists Meg Ryan as a producer) has done nothing to stem this decline.
Winona plays Maya Larkin, a former Satanic-possession case (you see her apparently quite painful exorcism in a few economical flashbacks), who has since dedicated herself to fighting Evil, the kind with a capital E. At the start of the film, she and her comrades including Father Lareaux (John Hurt) and a rather intense deacon (Elias Koteas, who should have a handle on this fiendish tomfoolery by now, having appeared in last year’s similarly-themed and underappreciated Fallen) are making it their business to rid good bodies of their internal demons. To this end, they run an exorcism on a guy named Henry (John Diel), currently incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane for murdering his entire family, under the auspices of a doctor (Alfre Woodard) who doesn’t believe in this spiritual mumbo-jumbo but for some reason allows the crusaders (and they do march in like superheroes, their robes billowing in slow motion, captured in a series of low-angle aren’t-they-formidable shots) to proceed. Though the exorcism is mostly disastrous, the intrepid crew learns that Satan is about to come to earth in human form. And no, he’s not showing up as Elizabeth Hurley. Rather, he’s going to inhabit a human male body one that has been carefully raised and will be ready at age 33, and one that’s arguably as pretty as Hurley’s. This man-about-to-be-“transformed” (this would be the repeated, technical term) is one Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin, who also has unusually large dark eyes: if he were a girl, he’d be Winona Ryder).
Kelson is a best-selling author, specifically, a biographer-analyst of serial and mass killers, as well as a popular television talk show guest (and you know the Dark Prince is always looking for access to media!). This last point is very convenient, as it allows Maya to hear his name announced one day while she’s working in her cell-like room where she lives at Father Lareaux’s church. She also hears him say that he has a well-defined notion of what makes bad people bad, which is, in a nutshell, that there is no such thing as “Evil with a capital E.” You see where this is headed: he’s destined to hook up with our lovely sour girl Maya, who has a deep and abiding belief in just that sort of Evil. Still, when she comes with the bad news that he is about to become the Satanic Possession Case to beat all, the Anti-Christ Himself, Peter is, understandably, skeptical. So he sends her packing. But then, after about a minute, he starts a-wondering… hmmm, just what does it mean that my Uncle James (Philip Baker Hall), a priest, has been behaving so strangely? That his parishioners wear black all the time? That my brother (W. Earlman Brown) looks like Mark David Chapman and can’t seem to stop eating even just after there’s just been an attempt on my life and the cops are interviewing us? Or that my pretty blond girlfriend (Sarah Wynter) has drawn a huge pentagram on the ceiling of the apartment right below our bedroom? And why oh why is it always raining?
The movie is clearly invested in Peter’s struggle, with the possibility or even the necessity of faith. It’s imperative for the Big Plan that he does not properly believe in anything God or the Devil. It just wouldn’t be appropriate for Satan’s vessel. And there are other measures Peter has to make, for instance, he has to have been born of incest, never been baptized, and have dreams of the numbers 666, stuff like that (perhaps the weirdest “personal data” point revealed about Peter by a police psychic, of all people is that his male research assistant has a crush on him, but the film rushes by that revelation, like it just can’t quite deal with it). But as interesting as all this Peter-info is, Maya is really the film’s focus. Partly that’s because she’s Winona, and partly because Maya is our point of entry, which means we spend most of your time and it does feel like you’re watching all this unfold for a long, long time with her. The camera loves to make long slow passes over her beautifully furrowed brow, to contemplate her slight, overburdened figure as she studies Father Lareaux’s books.
And for those hoping for a little action, there are a couple of scenes which take you inside Maya’s head. On the up side, this allows for some impressive digitized effects, as when a public bathroom turns all alive and creepy-crawly like rooms in The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. But instead of floods of blood, the already-puke-green bathroom gets all throbby and loud, then gushy and replete with overflowing sewage, crumbling walls, and a stalker coming at her with a great big shiny knife. Eww. Maya knows enough not to believe Beelzebub’s scams, and basically blows him off during this horrific display, but not until you get a good idea of how ripe it must be in that bathroom in her mind. Eventually, it is precisely her strength of mind her faith but also, more importantly, her will that is of greatest consequence in this battle for the future of the planet. That none of it feels of much consequence to us, well, that’s a problem.