As a horror fan, I have the same problem with exorcism movies as I do with zombie films. More often than not, it seems like once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
As much as I hate to say it, zombies are pretty dull. They do the same thing every time, so much so that even a slight break from the formula, such as a zombie using a weapon, seems like a revelation and a milestone in the genre. The best zombie entertainments are those that create unique situations in which to place the zombies (Dawn of the Dead) and, more importantly, provide protagonists you actually care about. This is the sole reason why The Walking Dead is so successful. Zombies aren’t interesting. Humans are. Or can be.
This is why I find exorcism movies even more frustrating. Whereas with zombies there isn’t much one can do to make them more frightening or interesting, the antagonist in exorcism films is the Devil, potentially THE most interestingly frightening being in the known universe. Given such potential, I’d imagine that filmmakers would find more intriguing things for the Devil to do beyond behaving like an annoying, foul-mouthed 13-year-old boy: calling people names and making inappropriate sexual remarks, then giggling about it afterwards (though, admittedly, when Anthony Hopkins does it, it becomes slightly more entertaining). The Devil never seems to be any scarier than a middle school locker room bully, and the way he is presented in The Rite is no exception.
If the Devil isn’t bringing anything new to the table, the burden of arousing the audience’s interest falls on the protagonist, or, in this case, the human. In The Last Exorcism, I found Patrick Fabian’s Rev. Cotton Marcus to be a very enjoyable character. The sheer smarminess and subtle contempt he displayed when it came to discussing his profession was entertaining to behold. The care and concern he showed towards the possessed girl, Nell, was also quite compelling. He was a complex character. Along with the documentary-style approach, Cotton Marcus made The Last Exorcism stand apart from its typical genre brethren.
The Rite, on the other hand, gives us Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), whose consistently furrowed brow, dour expression, and monotone voice could give Edward Cullen a run for his money in a sad-sack race. I mean, I know your mom is dead and you don’t have much of a relationship with your mortician father (Rutger Hauer), but cheer up a little, guy! You’re a good-looking man who has random hot chicks smiling sensually at you for reasons that don’t serve the movie in any way other than to remind the audience how physically attractive you are to the female species. At least you’ve got that going for ya, because beyond that, YOU’RE BORING. And no amount of Anthony Hopkins zaniness or the Devil’s adolescent behavior can compensate for that fact.
The reason why The Exorcist is the greatest exorcism movie of all time is because it was original. There hadn’t been anything else like it. To be sure, there still isn’t, but it’s sad that so many movies are trying so damn hard and only achieving mediocrity. Every sweet and innocent girl who winds up being possessed by the Devil (or one of his many minions) just comes across as a cheap knock off version of Regan. And as any Costco shopper knows, knock offs can be quite satisfying, but deep down we’re all aware that it’s no substitute for using a crucifix to masturbate with. Maybe the Devil has gone soft in his old age. Or maybe we’ve just become accustomed to cheap imitations.