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Lost Souls is either a weak, undercooked Exorcist clone, or an elegant, subtle, psychodrama. Maybe it’s both, but I hope it’s the latter.

Caveat

If you’re going to see Lost Souls, don’t read this review, or any other, until after you’ve seen the movie. Go with an open mind and without any expectations.

Belief in the Supernatural

Ben Chaplin as Peter KelsonEffective supernatural horror movies (like The Exorcist or The Haunting) work because they ease us into believing them. You never have to believe in demonic possession or ghosts in the first scene. In fact, these movies make us empathize with a skeptical character to begin with, and only when that skeptic starts to believe, do we too begin to believe.

Up to a point, the skeptic can dismiss strange phenomena as hallucinations or quirks of physics. But inevitably, something happens that is undeniably supernatural, and our skeptic believes.

Capital-E Evil

Winona Ryder plays Maya, a schoolteacher with a checkered past. She opens the movie by accompanying three Catholic priests to an asylum, where she assists in an exorcism as a layman expert. The exorcism goes badly, leaving one of the priests catatonic. Maya nabs the patient’s coded, manic scribblings before the asylum’s director notices.

Our skeptic is Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin), an authority on the evil men do. He’s written several books on the psychology of killers. In a TV interview, he says he doesn’t believe in Evil with a capital E. He believes that evil can be explained psychologically.

Maya has just decoded the scribblings, which read K-E-L-S-O-N, when she catches Peter’s interview. The next day she tracks him down and walks right in to his apartment. She wants to introduce him to Henry Birdson, the subject of the exorcism, and try to change his mind about capital-E Evil. She gives Peter an audio tape of the exorcism to pique his interest.

Peter starts out skeptical — after all she walked in to his apartment without knocking. He becomes more skeptical when he plays the tape and hears nothing but hum. When the two visit the asylum and find Birdson catatonic and unresponsive, Peter gives up on the whole crazy situation.

Becoming the Antichrist

Maya consults with John (Elias Koteas), one of the other priests from the exorcism. She tells him how Peter couldn’t hear the tape, which concerns them both gravely. In fact, John is so concerned he goes to a party where he knows Peter will be and makes an attempt on his life.

When the police make the connection between John and Maya, Peter becomes very angry. He goes to Maya’s church and tells her to leave him the hell alone. As he’s storming out, she lays her cards on the table. She tells him “you are about to become the Antichrist.” Maya explains that she and John believe the devil will become incarnate in Peter.

A Cinematographer’s Cinematographer

This is Janusz Kaminski’s directorial debut, although he’s been working in the movies for years. He’s been the cinematographer for Steven Spielberg since Schindler’s List, and in 1998 he won the Academy Award for his groundbreaking photography of Saving Private Ryan.

Kaminski recycles some of the photographic techniques from Private Ryan. A fast shutter gives the motion a jumpy, strobe-like effect. The technique was used more effectively in Private Ryan, although it does add tension and focus to certain scenes in Lost Souls.

Kaminski does a lot with light and dark. Appropriately enough, he picked Mauro Fiore, a former gaffer (lighting foreman) to be his cinematographer. Some of the most impressive photography involves an ironic contrast between light and dark. For example, Peter turns on a light that is so close to the camera, it fills half the screen with pure white. Yet Peter remains in the dark, the bulb by the camera barely illuminating the room at all.

Compared to The Exorcist, or Not

Compared to The Exorcist, Lost Souls is slow-moving and uneventful. Unfortunately, that’s going to be the impression some audiences and critics will have.

But Lost Souls shouldn’t be compared to The Exorcist. It’s fundamentally different.

In The Exorcist, like The Haunting, the audience must accept the existence of the supernatural. There is no other explanation. In Lost Souls, even though there is convincing evidence for the supernatural, there is room for a psychological explanation as well. It’s the kind of movie I’d like to see again with a more observant set of eyes.

Then again, seeing it a second time might convince me I’m wrong, and that Lost Souls really is a weak, undercooked Exorcist clone.