Lost Souls

Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Jane Sumner / The Dallas Morning News

Lost Souls was finished in 1998. The party line for its long delay is that there was already a spooklode of scary movies – The Sixth Sense, Stigmata, Stir of Echoes – floating into theaters last year.

So this uninvolving flick about a recovered demoniac (Winona Ryder) trying to save the world from an author (Ben Chaplin) tagged to become the Antichrist comes out on Friday 13th in the backwash of that vintage steamrolling shocker, The Exorcist.

Both are morality plays obsessed with possession – not drugs, but dark powers. Both are dependent upon exorcism – the casting out of demons – as a way of dealing with a devilish dilemma. And there the comparison ends.

While The Exorcist spawned mass hysteria, amazingly racked up 10 Oscar noms and two wins, and changed the way horror films are made, it's unlikely that Lost Souls will be in the running for much.

In the confusing, flatlined script by producer-turned-screenwriter Pierce Gardner, Ms. Ryder plays a devout Catholic who hangs out with priests who believe the devil will take over the body of a human being and plunge the world into darkness.

By decoding the number jottings of violent sociopath John Diehl, she deduces that Mr. Chaplin, a best-selling writer specializing in books about killers, one day will turn into Satan.

She races to convince the skeptical writer – a believer in scientific reason and logic, not demonic takeovers – that his whole life has been leading to this awful "transformation" on his birthday.

Unlike The Exorcist, which scared the bejeezus out of people, Lost Souls won't make viewers faint, vomit or squirm excessively. But there are some unintentional howlers – watch for the mattress-carrying scene – that had critics snorting with disdain.

The cast is first-rate. Ms. Ryder (who says she read the entire Bible to prepare for the role), Mr. Chaplin, John Hurt, Alfre Woodard, Elias Koteas and Philip Baker Hall are all strong screen holders when given meaty, coherent material.

But they have only paper doll roles to inhabit. Meg Ryan produced the project for her Prufrock Pictures production company, but wisely decided against playing the passive lead.

What does keep us on the screen, despite the flaccid script and frosty characters, is its elegant grainy, stark look. That's because it's the directing debut of Polish-born film artist Janusz Kaminski.

He may not be great shakes as a director, but he's a great Oscar-winning director of photography (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan). Mauro Fiore gets the cinematographer credit, but surely it's Mr. Kaminski's vision that informs and lights Lost Souls.

Perhaps with this horror film about evil incarnate he's exorcised his own directing devils. Next he'll go back to what he does best – directing the photography of Steven Spielberg's A.I. and Minority Report.