Sir Anthony’s Exorcist Coach

If young people are getting up and walking out on “The Rite,” it’s because the film is being marketed wrong ‒ as a horror flick rather than a serious, fact-based exorcism drama, insists Father Gary Thomas, the Saratoga priest whose training in Rome was detailed in the nonfiction “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.”

Rev. Gary Thomas

The New Line – Warner Bros. release, which scared up OK box office its first week, stars Anthony Hopkins as a batty-seeming exorcist and Colin O’Donoghue as a character based loosely on Rev. Thomas, pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saratoga and one of 25 sanctioned exorcists in the U.S.

“I keep telling folks, ‘You’ll find the movie doesn’t match the trailers,’” says Thomas. “It’s not primarily a horror flick. But, you know, New Line never asked my opinion. They’re in the business of selling movies; I’m in the business of the priesthood and Jesus Christ.”

The 57-year-old priest says he has carried out “about 40” exorcisms in five years but finds that the majority of people seeking his help “do not have diabolical problems, they have mental health issues.”

The ones who were possessed acted much like characters in “The Rite”: They contorted and shook uncontrollably, “as if they had an extreme case of Parkinson’s.” Others took on “a serpentine look, flopped out of their chair and curled up in a snake-like form.”

Such firsthand knowledge of the satanic made Thomas an invaluable asset to the filmmakers. He was invited to the Budapest set, where he gave pointers to Sir Anthony. (The film’s exteriors were shot in Rome.)

“I was there as consultant pertaining specifically to the exorcism scenes,” he explains. “I was there to provide guidance with respect to the accuracy of the ritual and, well, act as a kind of ‒ I hate to use the word ‒ coach for Anthony Hopkins in terms of how he should function as an exorcist.”

Thomas instructed the rakish Sir Anthony to wear his collar “at all times.” He also held a tutorial on how to bless and use holy water. “I talked to him about the emotion and energy behind the prayers.”

Still, as is Hollywood’s wont, licenses were taken.

“I haven’t seen anyone cough up nails, but my priest mentor has,” he says. “I’ve never seen any object vomited, period. And I’ve never been attacked to the degree that Colin’s character is. But I’ve had people come out of their chairs at me. I get attacked all the time when I’m doing this.”

Thomas is no horror fan. He has, however, seen a handful of exorcism movies, including William Friedkin’s 1973 “The Exorcist,” which he found “very over-the-top,” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which ‒ after “The Rite,” naturally ‒ he considers the best of the bunch.

As for the carping reviews that greeted “The Rite,” he shrugs them off. “The critics went in expecting a horror movie and they got a movie with depth. This is a very controversial, emotionally charged topic. It’s going to create a lot of conversation.”

Bottom line: The movie is true to the essence of Thomas’s story. “There isn’t anything in the movie that’s implausible. I’ve seen lots of unsightly things. I think if the average person saw some of the stuff, I think they’d be scared shitless.”

And if someone comes knocking in the middle of the night looking for an exorcist coach?

“I wouldn’t be opposed if I’m asked, but I have to be asked and I have to have my bishop’s permission.”

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