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Lost Souls (2000)
Director: Janusz Kaminski

review by Richard Bowden

Lost Souls stars a suitably haunted looking Winona Ryder as Maya Larkin, the secular assistant at a bungled exorcism. Having, herself, once been possessed at an early age, she is uniquely motivated to anticipate demonic events. From a code jotted down on sheets of paper in the possessed man's room, she learns that the devil is about to manifest himself in human form, then the identity of his chosen vessel (sceptical novelist Peter Kelson, played by Ben Chaplin). As the hour of reckoning approaches she battles to persuade him, and the church, of the truth.
   The debutant director of Lost Souls, Janusz Kaminski, was responsible for the cinematography of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List so he certainly knows where to place his camera and how to light his actors. The photography here is gorgeous, even on video, favouring a resplendent palate of reds and yellows. Whether or not this adds anything to a sought after atmosphere of culminative unease is a matter of opinion. It might be argued that the richness of Kaminski's vision, and the warmth it engenders in the viewer, actually works against the sought impact. The director might have taken a leaf from David Cronenberg's book, where much colder colours and clinical composition within the frame frequently serve to inculcate a sense of alienation and terror.
   At the heart of this film lies the doomed author Kelson and, with Larkin's help, his journey from outright disbelief to numbed acceptance of the dark forces that threaten to overwhelm him. Its success stands or falls on how convincing his change of mind is, and although the transition is managed smoothly enough, Chaplin's slightly perplexed, then stunned, manner hardly reflects the magnitude of the horror that faces him. One can't help imagining the greater soul searching that would have gone on if his part had been played by John Hurt, who has a minor role at the start as Father Lareaux, one the original exorcising priests. (He then briefly resurfaces later). Hurt's soulful and battered face would have made a far more convincing receptacle for spiritual distress, but would have hardly made good box office for the youthful viewers Lost Souls sought to impress.
   As it happens this film was indifferently received, the reasons not hard to find. Despite all of the flashy techniques employed, and the excellence of the cinematography, the set pieces inevitably disappoint. There's a feeling of tiredness, of deja vu, that none of Kaminski's efforts can quite dispel. Only with one or two scenes and moments does he succeed in creating any real frisson. Kelson's disturbing ride in the lift with his next door neighbour, for instance, where he is accused of being a noisemaker; or the giant close up of a knife tip threatening Larkin's iris during one of her hallucinations - an image, incidentally, that Dario Argento would have been proud of. At other times, the inspiration is less original. Thus, we are confronted by blood seeping across the floor - as in The Shining or a key word written backwards (this film's X-E-S recalling the R-E-D-R-U-M, from Kubrick's 1980 film. The brief image of hands stretching through walls is reminiscent of Kaminski's compatriot Polanski's Repulsion. More glaringly, the debts Lost Souls owes to The Exorcist and The Omen sometimes weigh too heavily and, as a consequence, the film struggles to find anything original to say. Not all the weakness of Lost Souls can be put down to such unimaginative cribbing. Odd ends of the plot fail to convince. Why, for instance, having established that Kelton has been named as the antichrist elect and knowing that a "time of transformation is at hand," does Larkin not immediately associate the two facts? Instead, she and the writer go out to seek out more clues in the house of a deranged deacon - as if further corroboration was really needed. (Such a redundancy does however set up a knife-stalking sequence with the possessed killer from the beginning). Then again: why at the end of the film, after the climactic confrontation, do none of the Satanists bother to chase after Larkin and Kelton after they escape out in the street? Such indifference to the fate of their leader seems unaccountable.
   Kelson's final acceptance of the supernatural reminds one of similar educations forced upon the heroes of Hayer's Night Of The Eagle (1961) or Tourneur's Night Of The Demon (1959). These are more successful films, also ones in which the hero's reason and trappings of civilised logic collapse before overwhelming fear and belief. In comparison to these earlier films, ultimately what most marks out Lost Souls as a film of its time is the ending - one that, presumably, further depressed box office receipts. But the downbeat final scene is actually one of its better plot points; by refusing the audience a reassuring coda to what has happened, it succeeds in being disturbing where the previous flashy in-your-face drama and horror largely has not. In short: this film entertains mildly enough, but hasn't worked too hard to provide anything original or unusual. In the crowded genre of exorcism and demonic possession flicks it won't turn many heads.
previously published online, VideoVista #27
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