Mortician or Priest

He is frequently known to need serious dental work.

I went to see The Rite this weekend. So did a lot of other people: as of this morningThe Rite is the number one movie in America.

Maybe Catholic horror is on its way back? Do I dare to hope? Even such a weak offering as this is better than naught! I saw The Rite in a building which used to also have a Borders, a cell phone store, an Italian restaurant, an art gallery, and a portrait studio. Now, the only thing in it is the theater. One of the escalators is seemingly permanently broken, and there are lots of “no loitering” signs posted. It’s all empty storefronts and mirrors someone is keeping shiny. The theater—which, itself, is somewhat ghostly due to the fact that it has a large second-floor snack bar that has been closed for years—has also seen better days. The little mall is in a “downtown” area full of empty storefronts that are now showcases for local schoolchildren’s artwork. I have a feeling there must be a lot of places in America like this. Places where you look around and wonder when, exactly, the plot was lost. Could we get exorcisms for buildings, cities, countries?

On to the movie. Spoilers ahead. There’s this guy, Michael Kovak, who lives in some crappy part of America with his aging father, a creepy mortician who made young Michael assist in the embalming of his own mother. We first see him working on a woman with a bracelet that appears to have an evil-eye charm and a “lil’ devil” tattoo on her shin. (Young ladies: if you take away nothing else from this movie, consider this: how tacky is your corpse going to look with all those marks on you? Think before you ink.) He decides to go to the seminary because everyone in his family is either a mortician or a priest. He tells this to his friend outside a local bar, where a comely young barmaid lets Michael know her shift will be over soon. Michael’s friend is agog and tells him to “say goodbye to his dick.” Michael assures him that he’s only getting on board for the free college education, after which he will opt out. I was practically yelling “It’s called the Army, dumbass!” and probably should have since there were only, like, two other lone people at the showing anyway.

Four years later, he writes an email stating that he wants out, that he doesn’t have any faith. His superior tells him that if he doesn’t take his final vows, the church will bill him for $100,000 in student loans. And that he sees something in Michael and isn’t letting him get away so easily. So it’s off to Rome for Michael ’cause the Pope has just announced that he wants an exorcist in every parish in America. The older priest tells him to take the class and see how he feels afterwards. Then Michael is in Rome and waltzing in late to a special class for exorcists and the priest in charge stops the class, greets him, and tells him he’s heard a lot about him.

Then Michael gets hooked up with Anthony Hopkins, an “unorthodox” Jesuit exorcist (complete with crumbling, solitary residence and pack of cats) and fails, time and time again, to swallow the Kool-Aid of evil. Hopkins, too, “sees” something in Michael. It’s a failure of screenwriting and of acting because we, the audience, see nothing there. He’s numb in every scene. I began to wonder if, given the shortage of priests, which Michael’s elder mentions to him when he tries to quit, if you’re a heterosexual, not a pedophile, and breathing, you get anointed as a Wonder Boy?

Michael mumbles a lot about not having faith, but he doesn’t really seem torn about it. He’s not suffering a crisis like the noble, tormented Fr. Damian Karras in The Exorcist. At the last minute Michael summons up something like conviction and exorcizes Baal for all he’s worth, then ends up back in an empty parish in the US hearing confessions, which is, I guess, supposed to be proof that he finally converted, but seems to me more of his just-going-along-with-whatever. Were I an aspiring priest who got to play on the big stage of Rome, there’s no way I’d give that up for dreary church duties. I was reminded of Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas, in the witness-protection program, picking up his newspaper in his bathrobe in his dreary suburban neighborhood. He says, in voiceover, “Today everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

But maybe this will herald a new age of Catholic horror movies? There’s plenty of evil in the world which needs exorcising, and it usually doesn’t come in the form of people spitting and scratching and rolling their eyes back in their head. I see a whole franchise for, say, Gabriel Byrne as a weary priest who travels the world and smokes the devil out with only his wits, a rosary, holy water, and a crucifix. Of course, true evil is banal and wears the disguise of normalcy—respectability!—while committing its nefarious deeds. Maybe it’s better to stick with the obvious metaphors.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.