Lost Souls (2000) 1/2 (out of 4)
Directed by: Janusz Kaminski
Starring: Winona Ryder, Ben Chaplin, Sarah Wynter, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt, Elias Koteas
Bless the Child (2000) (out of 4)
Directed by: Chuck Russell
Starring: Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Holliston Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Angela Bettis, Christina Ricci
The “Devil Movie” bandwagon probably started in 1997 with Devil’s Advocate, but the closer we got to the year 2000 the faster Tinseltown executives starting jumping on it. After Stigmata, End of Days and The Ninth Gate came these two religious thrillers – Lost Souls and Bless the Child – each one with their own special take on the imminent end-of-world scenario where, apparently, angels and demons have great supernatural powers but not enough to stop a bullet. Both movies concern the return of a Biblical figure – in the case of Bless the Child it’s Christ and in the case of Lost Souls, the Antichrist – the believability of the scenario in each film is stretched beyond the breaking point, even if you consider yourself a Christian, so it becomes necessary to suspend your disbelief and accept the concepts these films use as a foundation. Once reaching that point, how does each film fare in terms of plot, characterization, acting, suspense, and so forth?
In the case of Lost Souls, not bad. Winona Ryder plays a brooding, cigarette-smoking, former possession-case named Maya who now teaches at a local Catholic school and occasionally accompanies her priest friends on exorcisms. Hey, it’s a way to pass the time. On one particular exorcism job that ends badly, Maya hears the demons rattle off some random numbers that she later deciphers to represent the name of Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin), a local author who doesn’t believe in “Evil with a capital E”, and writes books on serial killers whom he says have “malignant narcissism”. A dispassionate atheist, Peter gets a visit from Maya who eventually tells him that he is to become the vessel for Satan on his 33rd birthday. I’m still trying to figure out what part of the Bible says that (the movie starts with a quote from “Deuteronomy Book 17″ – huh?), but let’s move on. Naturally skeptical, Peter starts to come around to the truth after having dreams about the letters “XES” (sex spelled backwards or 666 in Greek? you decide, audience!), discovers a pentacle under his bedroom, plays an exorcism tape that he can’t seem to hear, etc.)
Directed by Janusz Kaminski, the film shows off his flair for cinematography, and he makes good use of muted colors to deliver a suitably gloomy atmosphere. Kaminski seems to be a fan of Roman Polanski, as he includes plot elements lifted from The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. The same goes for A Nightmare on Elm Street (this is a New Line Cinema release, after all) as he includes two well-done dream sequences suffered by our heroine, and of course there are the requisite elements from The Exorcist.
The movie delivers fine performances, which is something of a miracle to do given the subject matter – it isn’t easy to say the line “You are about to become the Antichrist who was born unholy and becomes the door to eternal suffering in this world” and do it believably, with a straight face, but Ryder is up to the task. The ending, while anticlimactic, still has a subtle poetic quality to it, and it plays by the rules. One has to wonder, however, about the cheesy clock plot device – there are plenty of gimmicks in this movie; did it really have to go that far?
With all the problems possessed by Lost Souls and the genre it inhabits, it is a masterpiece compared to the garbage that is Bless the Child. I don’t know where to begin to describe the horror of this film, and by horror I don’t mean its subject matter – I’m talking about its performances and plotting. I probably should not have viewed Lost Souls first, because I ended up comparing Ryder’s performance with the travesty of acting that is Kim Basinger. With all the devil-dealing in these movies, I am convinced that the only believable scenario is that Basinger made a deal with Satan himself to generate a successful acting career.
Basinger plays Maggie O’Connor, a childless nurse who is suddenly paid a visit by her drug addict sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) with a newly born child in tow. We are soon treated to a laughably bad exchange, where Jenna taunts Maggie about not being able to start a family, and Maggie slaps her, and dramatic music swells, and I want to kill myself. Jenna disappears soon after, leaving baby Cody in Maggie’s hands. Six years later, Cody (Holliston Coleman), is still in Maggie’s custody and suffers from some form of autism. She also seems to have special abilities, like bringing dead animals back to life – you know, typical things kids do. This catches the attention of Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), a powerful leader of a youth foundation, but of course he happens to be a Satan worshipper who wants Cody for himself. What follows is a mindless back-and-forth where Eric kidnaps Cody, Maggie kidnaps her back, Eric kidnaps her again.. you get the idea. Somewhere in the middle of all this is a wannabe-priest turned cop (Jimmy Smits, who probably wonders why he left television) and a junkie Goth girl (Christina Ricci – who is damn good at playing junkie Goth girls).
All of this silliness revolves around the idea of the return of the messiah and his (her) temptation by the devil (well, Rufus Sewell, anyway). We also get cheesy ho-hum CGI effects and occasional visits by angels helping our heroes (all they seem to be able to do is hold open subway doors and mop floors – really, thanks for nothing). In the end, of course, bullets save the day. Poor Satan – he can’t seem to get around bullets. This must be why Christians love guns.
The only bright points of this disaster are a wonderful performance by Rufus Sewell, proving that his turn in Dark City was not a fluke. The man has an amazing presence. Holliston Coleman is also very cute and disarming. Why they are in this mess is a mystery – as is the inexplicable popularity of Kim Basinger. Note to Hollywood: if you ever put Kim in a movie again, try to make sure she dies a gory violent death.
- Bill Gordon