What do you do when Rosemary’s baby has grown up?
That is the question that faces Winona Ryder and ultimately Ben Chaplin as Satan’s vessel in the supernatural thriller “Lost Souls.” Ryder plays Maya Larkin, whose own possession and resulting Catholic faith has landed her a job as a Catholic schoolteacher and part-time exorcist assistant.
During a failed exorcism of violent sociopath Henry Birdson (John Diehl), Larkin discovers that Satan will be coming to transform into human flesh. Once that transformation occurs, guaranteed eternal darkness will descend upon the world.
The suspense does not lie in identifying that unfortunate being as Chaplin, who plays best-selling true-crime writer Peter Kelson. The dramatic tension instead is how a secular man in his early 30s will try to reconstruct his spiritual identity before it’s too late. Kelson, who was raised by his priest uncle Father James (Philip Baker Hall) with his brother after their parents were murdered, is a man with no faith. He faces brutality with a clinical eye and dismisses the concept of pure evil, blaming instead man’s will and the occasional mental disorder.
Janusz Kaminski, who won Oscars for cinematography in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” takes his place as director for the first time with “Lost Souls.” He clearly pays homage to the 1968 Roman Polanski film, down to keeping goriness at a minimum. Unlike the horrible sunlit cheeriness of its inspiration, though, “Lost Souls” embraces a forbidding Gothic landscape: brown brick hospitals, black wrought-iron gated churches, graffiti-scarred landscapes and remote wooden houses. Even the panoramic New York skyline views from Kelson’s high-rise office are constantly blurred and distorted by incessant rains.
The theme of running water illustrates Kaminski’s undeniable skills with imagery. Instead of baptismal purity, water often signals Satan’s unleashed presence, from a slow, ominous drip to a creeping sewage overflow to the torrential rains that promise to drown out mankind’s light.
“Lost Souls” does command attention, but mainly because of expectations that end up largely unfulfilled. Its examination of our current cynical age of faithlessness is betrayed by largely rote directorship and its own occasional knee-jerk reflexes of horror cinema.
Kaminski boldly or foolishly eliminates much of the potential suspense immediately after the credits with a quote: “A man born of incest will become Satan ” This device flattens much of the doubt in Kelson’s process of self-realization and investigation of his family lineage.
In fact, bewilderment largely describes his state of being throughout the film, but Chaplin isn’t largely to be blamed. Kaminski squanders an opportunity to look at the true-crime writer’s career of feeding our modern, almost worshipful fascination with sociopaths and serial killers. True horror, perhaps, could have been found in how acts of gruesome brutality are salaciously but coldly relayed in best-selling books and vapid television interviews.
Ryder truly thrives in the dark, whether the black comedy of “Heathers” or the claustrophobic confines in “Girl, Interrupted.” In “Lost Souls,” her haunted eyes and pale skin glow behind a tumble of brown hair. While Kelson occasionally interrupts his bewilderment for moments of bewildered intrigue into the concept of faith, Ryder shows how Larkin’s unrelenting convictions do not free her from torment. Her unsteadiness hints not only at a troubled background, which also includes murdered parents, but her lower-class origins. In a telling scene, Larkin applies her own transformation with makeup in order to gain entry and pass in Kelson’s moneyed world. While largely unexplored, a subtext of class and faith is subtly brought up in “Lost Souls.”
Kaminski makes an admirable show in a year of freshman directors in this genre (Tarsem Singh with “The Cell,” Joe Charbanic with “The Watcher”). His cinematography background contrasts clearly with a short-video education in his ability to reveal how a mood and story line can be told through lingering, sustained images. In the end, however, its restraint is not subtlety.