A couple of years ago, the Vatican's university started offering new courses on exorcism. Apparently, the Catholic church was fielding more reports of demonic possession and didn't have enough priests to sprinkle holy water on pea-soup-spewing victims. Call it Exorcism for Dummies.

This goofy fact -- documented in a nonfiction book about a priest who took the classes -- is the basis for "The Rite," a horror film that goes nowhere very, very slowly.

It's too bad, because the movie has the great Anthony Hopkins returning to high-concept villainy as a priest in need of his own exorcism. Hannibal Lecter be damned.

Herein lies the first problem with "The Rite": It makes us wait. Hopkins doesn't show his aging face until about 25 minutes into the film. In the meantime, director Mikael Håfström establishes a moody story centered around Michael (Colin O'Donoghue), a young American priest who travels to Rome to take an exorcism course. He's a skeptic and isn't impressed with the Vatican's high-tech classrooms, where a gruesome pictorial of demonic possession is only one touch-screen click away.

Michael is introduced to Hopkins' Father Lucas, a new-age exorcist with unorthodox methods. (For Satan's sake, he answers his cell phone during the film's first exorcism -- let it go to voice mail, man!)

The two spend the rest of "The Rite" expelling demons and discussing the finer points of faith and evil -- their hollow discourse amounting to nothing more than gobbledygook.

That said, "The Rite" serves up a few chilling scenes. Try not to squirm when a 16-year-old girl, pregnant and possessed, bends her fragile limbs in every direction (as is the style du jour in Hollywood exorcisms). And that's before she spits up stigmata nails and says to Michael: "Rape me."

By the time Lucas goes nuts -- and Hopkins is allowed to have some fun -- "The Rite" has already become a ridiculous mess. Still, the final showdown between Michael and a demonic Hopkins is a guilty pleasure.

Their face-off might remind you of the moment when FBI agent Clarice Starling first stepped to the glass prison cell containing Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." Hopkins savors this scene in "The Rite," delivering slithery insults to Michael like a familiar serial killer. You half-expect him to lick his lips and declare: "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

Now that would have been scary.

Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909