From the rerelease of The Exorcist" to the upcoming "Bedazzled" and "Little Nicky," 'tis the season for Satan cinema. "Lost Souls" may get lost in the shuffle, and for good reason: Despite a solid cast (headed by Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin) and two or three truly chilling, jump-in-your-seat moments, the directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, "Schindler's List"), is a rather convoluted tale of demonic possession, exorcism and End-Times theology. And it's derivative to boot, unless its rather overt references to "The Exorcist," "The Shining," "Rosemary's Baby" and even The Sixth Sense are intended as tributes. No wonder it was shelved for a year before being dusted off for release.
Kaminski and screenwriter Pierce Gardner jump-start the story with a spooky prelude. Catholic teacher Maya Larkin (Ryder, with suspiciously long hair but eyes as wide as ever), creepy old Father Lareaux (John Hurt) and associate John Townsend (Elias Koteas) embark on a gravely serious mission. Shot in slow-motion, they make their way through the dank, dark, cavelike rooms of a mental ward. (Mauro Fiore's cinematography is evocative, and easily matches the mood of the movie.)
The renegade Catholics have been invited by murderer Henry Birdson (John Diehl), a former math teacher who's obsessed with numerology, to help rid his body of the Devil within. His physician (Alfre Woodard, in a cameo) protests that her patient would be harmed by the goings-on. "I'm going in there with you," she says. "You wouldn't last five minutes," Maya says, in tones as ominous as Ryder is able to utter. It's not as scary as it sounds.
That exorcism is a failure. But our heroine and her single-minded pal Townsend go home with clues regarding the imminent arrival of the Antichrist, thanks to Birdson's scribbling of a series of numbers and Larkin's subsequent work in cracking the code. The evidence suggests that Satan's reincarnation in human flesh will take place courtesy of human host Peter Kelson (Chaplin), a high-profile crime writer who loudly proclaims his disdain for the existence of evil with a capital "E."
On the surface, the handsome author seems the least likely of candidates. He has a loving relationship with an attractive girlfriend (Sarah Wynter); an uncle, Father James (Philip Baker Hall), who pitched in to raise the family when Kelson's parents died; and an older brother (W. Earl Brown) who only wants the best for his sibling.
But things are seldom what they seem -- particularly when Beelzebub is around -- and the writer's world begins to crumble. Which brings us to the moral of the story: If a Revelations-spouting conspiracy theorist invites herself (or himself) into your office, call security immediately. And never give it a second thought.