Exorcist: The Beginning

on August 20, 2004 by Mark Keizer
Good and evil duke it out once again in "Exorcist: The Beginning." But the battle here is not between Father Merrin and the Devil. It's between those who'd make a scary film about a priest wrestling with his faith and those who'd prefer an artificially adrenalized satanic smackdown. In the end, the film pays lip service to the former and embraces the latter, which makes the result less a failure of filmmaking than of nerve. The story of Merrin's first run-in with The Father of All Lies is serviceable and could have been made interesting by any number of writers and directors, none of whom worked on this movie. "The Beginning's" beginning, as any reader of newspapers, magazines, the internet or men's room walls already knows, involved John Frankenheimer, who left during pre-production and died shortly after. He was replaced by Paul Schrader, whose subsequent film was rejected by production company Morgan Creek and then entirely re-written and re-shot by Renny Harlin. And when you replace the director of "Affliction" with the director of "Driven," you're sending a clear message to the audience, one that should seriously be considered an insult.

It is 1949 and Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, who will grow old and become the original's Max Von Sydow), has given up the priesthood after a nasty run-in with Nazis during World War II. In Cairo earning booze money as an archeologist, he meets a mysterious antiquities dealer (Ben Cross; always nice to see the star of "Chariots of Fire") who offers him a spot on an archeological dig in Kenya, where the British have discovered a Christian church built years before Christianity came to sub-Saharan Africa. It's a mission that conveniently straddles his past and present vocations, and Merrin often asks to be referred to as Mr. Merrin, not Father Merrin. Upon arrival at the dig, he meets Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a beautiful doctor who helps him get to the bottom of the increasingly mysterious and cliched goings-on. The film's flabby middle third gives way to Merrin's face-off against the Devil, a middling climax in which the audience wonders whether Merrin will repeatedly scream "the power of Christ compels you!" like he did in the original. Story threads involving the Kenyan locals, who blame the visitors for all that has befallen them, and Merrin's relationship with the church are given half-assed treatment. Instead, valuable screen time is hijacked by uninspired exercises in Horror 101. In fact, had 15 minutes of arbitrary scares and shots of characters peering around corners been exorcised, "Exorcist: The Beginning" would have at least been an interesting failure.

The always-reliable Skarsgard does what he can and Scorupco (a dead ringer for Saffron Burrows from Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea") is fine. CGI effects, including hyenas and birds, are below industry standard. The only noteworthy behind-the-scenes contributor is master DP Vittorio Storaro, who makes the film look better than it is. As for Harlin, he's just not the director for this movie. He's made great action films ("Die Hard 2"), surprisingly OK action films ("Deep Blue Sea") and terrible action films ("Cutthroat Island"). Ergo, he is an action film director, and to hand him anything that requires more than wafer-thin characters and machine-operated thrills is a mistake.

Not to defend a bad movie, but those who shake their fists at the ruination of the "Exorcist" franchise should remember that the series was ruined long ago. Let's face it, the creative run-up to Harlin's film includes an original that's barely frightening anymore (1973's "The Exorcist"), one of the worst sequels ever made (1977's "Exorcist II: The Heretic") and a second sequel no one even remembers (1990's "The Exorcist III: Legion"). Given such pedigree, it would seem that Harlin is guilty only of failing to re-invigorate a series that ran out of gas in the '70s.

Warner Bros. is currently considering releasing the Schrader version (maybe they'll call it "Exorcist: The Beginning: The Version You've Never Seen"). Although the idea of a Schrader-directed film is always better than an actual Schrader-directed film, those with "Exorcist"-on-the-brain are advised to wait for that one. Though no one blames bottom-line obsessed Hollywood for not wanting to release what is rumored to be a $40 million art film, that idea is more intriguing than anything in "Exorcist: The Beginning." Starring Stellan Skarsgard, James D'Arcy and Izabella Scorupco. Directed by Renny Harlin. Written by Alexi Hawley. Produced by James G. Robinson. A Warner Bros. release. Horror. Rated R for strong violence and gore, disturbing images and rituals, and for language including some sexual dialogue. Running time: 112 min
Tags: Stellan Skarsgard, James D'Arcy, Izabella Scorupco, Renny Harlin, Alexi Hawley, James G. Robinson, Warner Bros, horror, violence, gore, disturbing, sexual, frightening, mystery

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