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by: Josh Siegal

LOST SOULS has been on the shelf at New Line for over a year since its originally scheduled release date last fall. The official story was that it was pushed back to avoid the slew of similarly-themed films slated for the pseudo-end of the millennium (END OF DAYS, STIGMATA). In order to avoid comparisons and find an open market for a film about demonic possession and exorcism, they waited and waited until October 13, 2000 -- the day the successful re-release of THE EXORCIST went nationwide. So much for avoiding comparisons.

LOST SOULS isn't just bad because it's not as good as THE EXORCIST. It's bad because it's yet another exercise in moody production values supporting an utterly weightless story. Winona Ryder stars as Maya Larkin, a young woman working on the Catholic Church's equivalent of the X-Files. Once upon a time she was saved from a demonic possession by Father Ledeaux (John Hurt); now she works with him and his associates on other exorcisms. But the granddaddy of all possessions is on the horizon: Maya has discovered the identity of the man who will become the Antichrist, a best-selling non-fiction writer named Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin). Kelson himself has no idea that he may be part of a dark plan, but Maya is determined to clue him in, even if it means going toe-to-toe with Evil With a Capital "E."

Gifted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who worked with Steven Spielberg on SCHINDLER'S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) makes his directing debut with LOST SOULS, and he trots out plenty of visual goodies to tart up the proceedings. Unfortunately, they're the sort of visual goodies that just make you chuckle at their obviousness. There are ominous slow-motion shots of Maya and her associates heading towards an exorcism like an ecclesiastical crew of reservoir dogs. There are jagged edits and low-angle shots intended to evoke evil through obscurity. And there are plenty of shots of slowly-dripping water, which apparently has become the standard-issue portent of Satanic antics. On exactly one occasion, Kaminski's freaky imagery evokes a shiver. For the other 94 minutes of LOST SOULS, it evokes a sense of desperation.

And it's no wonder he's desperate, considering the script he's working with. It's one thing for a film about the Prince of Darkness to be melodramatic, or overwrought, or even silly. It's quite another for it to be an outright bore. LOST SOULS is an incredibly monotonous experience, never once working up a really good scare or a palpable sense of unease. It doesn't develop anything resembling momentum towards a satisfyingly harrowing conclusion, which makes it all-too-easy to dwell on the sluggishly paced expository scenes. Ryder spends the film looking vaguely tormented, while Chaplin spends the film looking puzzled and then vaguely tormented, and there's no reason whatsoever to care about either one of them. It sometimes seems that every part of LOST SOULS that could have inspired a genuinely visceral reaction has been edited out, leaving an indistinct morass of gloomy cinematography in its stead.

Occasionally LOST SOULS shakes itself from its coma-inducing torpor just long enough to be aggressively dumb. The hilarious climax comes as Peter's car radio clock ticks down to his "transformation," suggesting not only that the Apocalypse will be filmed like a scene from SPEED, but that Peter conscientiously synchronized his clock that morning to Hell Mean Time. At the very least, such foolishness provides a distraction the rest of LOST SOULS can't be bothered with. There's no excuse for a movie about the primal forces of evil to make Satan's influence seem so banal. Twenty-five years have passed since THE EXORCIST was first released, and it's still a jolt to the system. LOST SOULS could have remained on New Line's shelf for another twenty-five years, and no one would have missed it.

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