Sometimes you can go exploring the nooks and crannies of an actor’s filmography for an obscure gem or an unfairly overlooked film. Lost Souls (2000), starring Winona Ryder, is not one of those movies. Filmed in 1998 and scheduled to be released in October 1999, it was pushed back to February 2000 in order to avoid the glut of supernatural thrillers like End of Days, The Ninth Gate and Stigmata that were populating the multiplexes at the time. It was rescheduled again to October to avoid going up against the popular Scream franchise where it went up against the re-release of The Exorcist (1973) and promptly tanked at the box office and was trashed by critics. Despite featuring a visually arresting look by cinematographer-turned-director Janusz Kaminski and an engaging performance by Ryder, Lost Souls was plagued by a formulaic plot and cardboard cutout characters.
Father Lareaux (John Hurt) and his team, that consists of Deacon John Townsend (Elias Koteas) and associate Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder), arrive at a psychiatric hospital at the request of one of its patients, Henry Birdson (John Diehl) who obsessively writes pages and pages of numbers. He also happens to be suffering from demonic possession. The exorcism goes badly and afterwards Maya decodes Henry’s cryptic pages and discovers that it repeats the same name: Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin). Meanwhile, Peter, a successful true crime author, is covering the sensational trial of an accused killer. The writer is a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic that doesn’t buy the defense’s theory of demonic possession.
Maya believes that Peter will become possessed by the Devil but, not surprisingly, the Diocese rejects her findings, dismissing them as part of an obsession that originated from a troubled childhood. Of course she ignores them and tracks down Peter, trying to chip away at his skepticism about the existence of God and the Devil by taking him to see Henry only to discover that he’s in a stroke-induced coma. Maya not only has to convince Peter that he may be possessed by the Devil but also work through her own inner demons as it were, especially when she begins seeing things, causing her to question her own sanity.
Winona Ryder brings a fierce conviction and a haunted quality to Maya who firmly believes that people can be possessed and it is her calling to exorcise the demons from them. The actress does a good job of conveying her character’s obsessive nature through sometimes-fidgety body language. She also uses her big, expressive eyes to suggest someone haunted by their past, which we get glimpses of via a flashback of Father Lareaux performing an exorcism on her. She even transforms herself for the role, adopting an almost mousey, unkempt look complete with bulky, ill-fitting clothing and an earthy brown hair color. Ryder is an interesting actress to watch. She has some of the qualities of a silent movie star in the way she carries herself. She has a limited range as a thespian but knows how to work within it.
Ben Chaplin seems like an amicable enough guy and I don’t know if it’s just the roles he picks or it’s his nature but he has a tendency to play characters on the bland side and Peter Kelson is no different. There’s nothing particularly annoying about the character but there also isn’t anything particularly memorable about him either – and he’s supposed to be possessed by the Devil!
Lost Souls is one of those movies you can tell was directed by a cinematographer because he employs all the showy, stylistic flourishes that most directors keep in check on their own productions. So, Kaminski cuts loose with the excessive use of slow motion shots, skewed angles, extreme close-ups and adopts the same washed-out look he employed for Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan (1998). Kaminski does stage a suitably creepy set piece in which a bathroom comes apart around Maya with tiles flying off the walls and foul-looking brown water pouring out all over the floor while Henry suddenly appears brandishing a large, sharp knife.
In 1997, writers Betsy Stahl and Pierce Gardner pitched the idea for a supernatural thriller to Meg Ryan and her producing partner Nina R. Sadowsky as a vehicle for the actress. However, she decided to do City of Angels (1998) instead. While looking for a new lead actress, the studio landed Janusz Kaminski as director who said at the time of its release, “It’s not the most ideal project, but no one will give me the most ideal project without being able to see what I can do as a director.” Winona Ryder soon signed on.
Ryder was drawn to the project because she knew nothing about the subject matter. She was also attracted to the challenge of playing a character that believes in demonic possession, something that she didn’t personally believe in. She also wanted to do a thriller. To prepare for the role, she met with Father John Lebar who had experience with exorcisms and she even watched a few of them on videotape. Ryder also read The Bible but said, “I don’t believe in the devil. Never have. I think he’s a very abusive tool used on children. I think that’s a horrible way to raise a child – through fear. But I respect people who do believe he exists.”
Ryder had heard of Ben Chaplin through director Michael Lehmann who had worked with him on The Truth about Cats and Dogs (1996) and with her on Heathers (1989). As a result, she wanted him to do Lost Souls with her and he needed a job. During release delays, the studio requested reshoots for the finale because they considered the original to be too abrupt. Two more endings were filmed before executives went with the original one.
Not surprisingly, Lost Souls received predominantly negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave it two out of four stars and wrote, “These events and others are related in a downbeat, intense, gloomy narrative that seems better suited for a different kind of story. Even the shock moments are somewhat muted, as if the movie is reluctant to ‘fess up to its thriller origins.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Too late to seize on any New Year dread – though at one point, Philip Baker Hall, as a faux priest, gets to say, ‘They had their 2,000 years; now it’s our turn’ – the picture settles for a muted hysteria and cockroaches flailing about on their backs.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D+” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “The deep questions Lost Souls asks are these: Can Maya save Peter? Does the devil flourish in the absence of a belief in God? Was screenwriter Pierce Gardner, previously a producer, struck dumb by repeated viewings of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Kim Basinger in Bless the Child? But decipherable editorial positions, let alone answers, don’t follow.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Pierce Gardner’s woefully underdeveloped script is further undermined by stretches of unintentionally amusing dialogue. Neither scary nor even suspenseful, the picture is swiftly a turnoff, and stunning cinematography by Mauro Fiore and elaborate production design by Garreth Stover do not compensate for the many flaws.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe felt it was a “pretty dreary affair to sit through. It’s not even scary … Basically, it’s just a green-tinted, contemplative pseudo art-horror flick that can’t avoid such silly pronouncements.”
Lost Souls treads the same familiar ground already covered by countless other films, from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Stigmata without doing anything to stand out from those other efforts aside from some superficial cinematographic pyrotechnics. Ryder, as always, is interesting to watch and one wishes that she was in it more. In fact, a more intriguing movie would’ve been one that focused on Maya instead of Peter, delving more into her past instead of only the tantalizing tidbits we get in Kaminski’s movie. One gets the feeling that Lost Souls was probably compromised from the get-go and if the studio really had a strong movie on their hands that they believed was good they wouldn’t have moved its release date multiple times. The end result features a solid performance by Ryder but little else.
Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. “Lost Souls.” Entertainment Weekly. October 12, 2000.
“The Return of Ben Chaplin.” Movieline. November 1, 2000.
Vincent, Mal. “Goody One-Shoe.” Los Angeles Times. November 2, 2000.