It's lazy to attack a genre film for being a genre film. That is to say, there's no point in complaining that a movie hews too closely to well-worn tropes when it's those tropes that make us want to see a film in the first place. "That Western has too much gorgeous landscape photography!" "That musical has a silly, predictable love story!" "The characters in that slasher film act like idiots!" And so on; and we all do it, I suppose, complaining that a thing is no more than itself, but it's unfair. These tropes form, after all, because they are robust; because they are durable; because they please us. The appeal in seeing the Nth version of a story is to see how well it is done, not to be surprised by it.

With the exception of the exorcism film.

For nearly four decades now, every film about an exorcism (and they are not few in number) has had to confront one question: does this movie do anything - anything at all - that was not already done in The Exorcist? The answer is virtually always "no", and so we're confronted with film after film of the same narrative beats, the same make-up effects, the same gravelly Mercedes McCambridge parody on the soundtrack. This is less a matter of "seeing how different filmmakers play the same situations", and more "observing a hundred different amateur theater companies each butchering the same play".

Here, then, I must pause to give at least some credit to The Rite, which struggles mightily to be something other than yet another feeble re-tread of The Exorcist; as if to prove how serious everybody is, there's even a joke about spinning heads and pea soup. Note that the film struggles mightily, not successfully: by the end, it has given up and thrown its lot in with all those other exorcism movies and provides us with all the expected moments, showcasing in the process how much less threatening demonic possession looks when you're trying to keep it within a PG-13. It's a dismaying lurch into convention, but not a surprising one. Truth be told, one gets the feeling that the creators of The Rite felt obliged to mix in the usual exorcism movie fireworks upon noticing that their horror movie was appallingly boring for anyone who doesn't get his jollies from considering finer points of Roman Catholic theology. But at any rate, the effort is in there to make a movie that's a little bit more than so much boilerplate, even if this effort ends in total failure.

Inspired a true story, screenwriter Michael Petroni is quick to point out on a title card - to which I might reply, "As was Psycho" - The Rite opens big, with a young man we'll come to know as Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) preps a dead body for funerary services. Michael is the son of a joyless, perhaps crazy mortician named Istvan (Rutger Hauer), and he knows that there are only two paths for him to take: the morgue or the seminary. Which is how this atheist-leaning-agnostic ends up, four years later, about to take his vows; but a crisis of faith holds him back. The kindly Father Matthew (Toby Jones), rather imperiously dismissing the young man's inner turmoil for my tastes, ships Michael off to exorcism school at the Vatican, where he is bored out of his skull watching Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds) give talky multimedia lectures like that one college professor who was thrilled to use computers but had no idea how. Xavier takes Michael's doubts more seriously than Matthew did, and sends the youth to meet with Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), a rogue exorcist living in a particularly cat-addled corner of Rome. Also, Alice Braga plays a journalist so that there can be a female lead & not for any particular reason related to the needs of the plot.

Father Lucas takes Michael and the audience on a tour of "real" possessions, the kind that aren't full of slamming doors and things erupting into flame and the like, and Michael remains stubbornly unsure if any of this is true or just superstition, in the face of some fairly concrete evidence that would make just about every legitimate agnostic I know cry uncle. For The Rite is not just an exorcism movie, it is a Catholic Faith Is Hard movie, almost as hoary and overworked a genre. This is where things start to get really rough for the picture: given that the evidence Michael sees is so completely overwhelming, his dithering about what he believes quickly ceases to seem like a genuine crisis, and begins to feel like sheer petulance (also, O'Donoghue is a fairly listless performer; this does not help matters any). And while the filmmakers are obviously tremendously devoted to making a film that seriously treats upon the question of how and why we are to have faith, so much so that for stretches The Rite plays a bit like a propaganda piece for Benedict XVI's exorcism squadrons, the film shoots itself in the foot thanks to director Mikael Håfström's insistence on draping everything in a uniform shroud of gloomy dread.

As a result, The Rite is a failure both as a serious Catholic work - too trashy - and as a good moody horror piece - too trashy and too preachy. Also, too much emphasis on a demon mule achieved with maximum hokiness. Also, a Spring-Loaded Cat that thwonks into a glass window like it was launched out of an air cannon. Håfström has worked in this kind of dubious material before: his last prominent feature was the limp haunted hotel piece 1408, but that lacks the gaudiness which results from The Rite's inept juggling of two very different tonal registers.

(Incidentally, if you want to see a horror movie with pronounced overtones of Catholic faith done well? Check out, that's right, The Exorcist).

All this would be so much underbaked twaddle if not for one thing: Anthony Hopkins. I don't know if anyone out there is still holding out hope for him to ever give a good performance in a good movie ever again; but since that seems unlikely, we might as well enjoy his more robust jolts of insanity. His performance in The Rite is everything his work in last winter's cruddy horror picture The Wolfman wasn't: playfully bad, hammy, large and absurd (a scene where Father Lucas takes a cell phone call during an exorcism, Hopkins playing it with plummy disaffection, is easily the highlight of the film). Since the trailer has up and given away the film's third act twist, I can mention that when (SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE TRAILER. OR LOOKED AT THE POSTER) Lucas is possessed himself, Hopkins absolutely goes to town with slavering looks and snarls, and oh! how I wish the film were rated R at this point, that the actor might get do roll some of the typical exorcism movie vulgarities around. Or at least violate himself with a crucifix.

At any rate, a healthy dollop of Hopkins goes a long way, and there are a few spots where The Rite is almost a good bad movie (and even fewer spots where it's almost a good good movie; I was stunned that they were there, but they were). In the end, the clumsy direction of an erratic script doesn't add up to anything worthwhile, though, and the legacy of January horror releases continues unabated.