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'The Monk' needs more juice from scandalous source material

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By Robert Horton
Herald Movie Critic
Beating Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" by a couple of decades, the novel "The Monk" was published to scandalized acclaim in 1796.
Its author, Matthew Lewis, stirred up a messy controversy with the apparently sacrilegious book and its stylings have kept it notorious as a key Gothic novel.
None of which quite explains why director Dominik Moll, who hadn't made a movie since 2005's eerie "Lemming," decided to revive this property and give it such a straight-ahead adaptation.
He's aided in his effort by a strong central performance from international star Vincent Cassel, but the film has an oddly non-igniting quality.
The movie has some of the overheated atmosphere of "Les Miz" without the songs. Foundling babies, illicit sex and evil doings swirl around a Spanish monastery, where a particularly devout monk named Ambrosio (played by Cassel) is prized for his charismatic sermons.
The strangest of the movie's events is the arrival of a young novitiate, whose face is covered by a mask because of serious burns. The mask suggests that not all is as it seems with this character, but it gets much kinkier than you might think.
A subplot involving a virginal young woman and her earnest suitor is bound to get dragged into the devilish doings.
And don't think we won't get a visit from Satan himself; Ambrosio's spiritual purity is much too prominent not to make itself a target for the devil's temptations.
If all of this sounds ancient and old-fashioned, that's the way it plays on screen, too. In his previous films, which along with "Lemming" included the crossover hit "With a Friend Like Harry …," Moll brought a wry, modern attitude to his Hitchcockian stories.
Not so here; "The Monk" is a straight Gothic cocktail of lightning cracks, trembling innocents and lots of close-ups of stone gargoyles in various stages of horror.
Having said that, the movie should be more devious fun than it is. Vincent Cassel, fresh off effective turns in "Black Swan" and "A Dangerous Method," gives subtle shading to Ambrosio, and in its own way it's an admirable performance.
Still, the movie is in dire need of goosing up. When an adaptation of a notorious novel leaves you wondering what all the original scandalous, blasphemous fuss was about, the film has fallen short.
"The Monk" (2 stars)
A notorious Gothic novel from 1796 gets a too-tame adaptation in Dominik Moll's old-fashioned film. Vincent Cassel ("Black Swan") gives a subtle performance as a devout priest put in the path of various devilish temptations, but the movie overall needs some goosing, especially given the potentially wild subject matter. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: R for nudity, subject matter.
Showing: SIFF Uptown.
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