If spooky movies based on tenets of Catholicism are your bag, you can do a lot worse than "Lost Souls," in which Winona Ryder stars as a once-possessed woman trying to find and save a man destined to become Satan incarnate.
It's no "Exorcist" -- although it is cashing in on that film's rerelease -- but at least this faith-based frightener doesn't invent "missing" books of the Bible to advance its plot like the pathetic action hybrid "End of Days." At least it's not inundated with shopworn demonic clichés like the pathetic "Bless the Child." At least it's not just an exercise in style over substance, like the Goth/MTV genre entry "Stigmata."
No, "Lost Souls" actually has quite a bit going for it before narrative loose ends begin to unravel the whole picture.
Ryder gives her strongest, most atypical performance in ages as a psychically susceptible woman, still shaken by frequent demonic visions years after her own exorcism as a teenager. Because of her unique experience, she works with the church helping cast the devil out of others when need be. Otherwise she spends time with a small sect of obsessive priests and seminary students, researching when and where the film's Satanic takeover will take place and trying to determine who will be the victim.
After one insane asylum exorcism that goes terribly wrong -- leaving the priest in shock and the subject into a coma -- she breaks the code of demonic writings by the possessed patient and discovers the man they're looking for is a best-selling author of books about the psychology of serial killers (played by Ben Chaplin from "The Truth About Cats and Dogs").
Naturally, he's an agnostic, so telling him he's going to be taken over by Satan is a hard sell. But after one of Ryder's more radical colleagues tries to murder him, he begins a short journey of self-exploration that leads him to have faith at least in her, if not yet in her beliefs.
Directed by former cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan"), it's no surprise the film has a unique visual signature of inventive, disorienting dutch angles, startling close-ups and an opulent, deep, crisp color palate with a layer of pigment stripped away, creating a slightly otherworldly atmosphere.
What is a surprise is that Kaminski pays as much attention to personalities as he does to camera work. Ryder, Chaplin and others in the cast develop three-dimensional characters who have substance and don't exist simply to serve the plot.
Screenwriter Pierce Gardner puts a good amount of thought into drawing interesting parallels to the Bible and takes fewer liberties with that source material than most genre movies. (However, he does twist antiquity when it serves him: "Sex" spelled backwards is not "666" in ancient Greek. I looked it up.)
But the story's structure is slipshod, and ultimately a few significant missteps substantially undermine the film's believability. Scattered throughout are plot developments left hanging and scenes that feel like delay tactics, begging the question of whether Ryder even knows what to do to prevent Chaplin from becoming a vessel of the devil once she's found him.
In one scene, the possessed patient from the asylum (apparently escaped) attacks Ryder and Chaplin, then begins to morph into some kind of demon. Suddenly Kaminski cuts ahead to our heroes casually sipping coffee as if nothing had happened and they hadn't just discovered Chaplin's seemingly inevitable transformation is only a few hours away.
Later, in a hackneyed struggle for a gun, another character is killed in Chaplin's apartment. Despite establishing early on that the walls in his place are thin, no neighbors hear the gunshot and the director cuts away again, leaving us to wonder what became of the body.
"Lost Souls" also ends with an abrupt and anticlimactic thud. (But at least it's not some over-produced demonic showdown.)
This movie has been finished and sitting on a shelf for more than a year, which usually indicates the studio thinks it stinks. "Lost Souls" is certainly nothing to write home about, but compared to its recent predecessors it's nothing to be ashamed of.