Lately, there have been several DVD releases in the occult/thriller genre. For the most part the entries have been rather mediocre. With the release of Lost Souls we dont have something of the stature of the Sixth Sense or Rosemarys Baby but for the most part it is a film with a degree of intelligence and interest. Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder) is a teacher in a little Catholic school. She is also a survivor of an exorcism and because of that is used by the church as a lay assistant in the procedure. Her latest assignment is to help Father Lareaux (John Hurt) as he tries to expel demons from a mathematics professor turned serial killer. The ceremony fails horribly and the priest is badly injured and the victim left in a comma. Maya finds some cryptic notes written completely in numbers. After about a carton of cigarettes she manages to decode it and comes up with the name Kelson. As it turns out Peter Kelson (Ben Chapman). Kelson is a writer who specializes in a particularly gruesome serial killer. Kelson looks like he has the perfect life. His books have brought him wealth. He has a beautiful girlfriend Claire (Sara Wynter), a great apartment and a loving uncle (also a priest). Of course Maya has to seek out Kelson to tell him that something sinister is about to happen and he is involved. Of course the standard faire for the genre is in here, the penultimate chase scene, the quiet expository moment between Kelson and Maya and the twist between good and evil.
There is an excellent cast in this film. Of course, Ryder is in near top form. She comes off as a chain smoking elf, a child-woman that plays the thin line between innocence and strong willed determination. While not as powerful a performance as she delivered in Girl, Interrupted, she does carry the film with élan. Chapman is perfect as the target of this demonic cult. He demonstrates an inner strength in his character that brings the dark ending into the realm of believability. He makes Kelson into an every-man character that the audience can identify with and care about as the film progresses. What really holds a film together and helps to elevate it above lesser entries of the genre is the ancillary cast. One down side here is the under utilization of such a great actor as John Hurt. Here, the artist that brought us such a powerful performances as seen in The Elephant Man is reduced to a role that is little more than a cameo. This seems to be a trend in a lot of recent movies. I guess even the best actor has to pay the bills. Also seen in a role that can not begin to address his incredible talent is Philip Baker Hall. This actor, often used by director Paul Thomas Anderson in such films as Magnolia and Sydney has even a smaller role than Hurt. The measure of the talent in these men is how with so little to work with they command the role and add to the production.
The first thing I noticed about this film was the use of kinetic camera use, lighting and how the colors were bleached out to give a grimly realistic almost documentary feel. My thoughts were immediately reminded of Saving Private Ryan. As I reviewed the credits the reason for this became very apparent. The director, Janusz Kaminski, has worked for years as Steven Spielbergs cinematographer. In fact Kaminski worked in this capacity on Private Ryan. He has learned well from such an august mentor. One thing that is expressed several times in the commentary is how the pacing of the film differs from the usual occult horror flick. Rather than the typical fast paced slasher film found in this genre Kaminski goes for the slower paced more emotional and psychological thriller. He builds the story one scene at a time. He develops the two central characters with care and timing not often seen in a freshman director. You can tell when a director comes from an associated field in film. Just as Sidney Lumet, a former director of photography takes great care in details such as lens use, Kaminskis background in cinematography is evident in the care and skill in the lighting. The sets are bleak. Light is used not to show enlightenment but rather the growing danger to the characters. The mood is set perfectly for the very dark, non-Hollywood ending. He also relies far less on special effects than the emotional performances provided by the cast. This alone sets this film somewhat apart from the typical member of this genre.
The production values of the disc are representative of the higher standards many DVD collectors are demanding. The audio is presented in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS six channel. Each of these soundtracks are amazingly clear and well balanced. As a personal preference I found the DTS version a bit fuller and that it provided a better back fill. The video is anamorphic 1.85:1. Although it is often difficult to judge the color balance due to the use of the color bleaching technique mentioned above, the picture is clear, free of artifact and works well even in scenes that go rapidly form dark to light. There is an interesting technical commentary by the director and his cinematographer. It offers a good deal of insight into the evolution of the production. Extras also include a DVD ROM interface that provides a working script and links to the official site. Considering what has been coming out lately on DVD and the many poorly done entries into this genre this one is worth owning.