Exorcist: The Beginning Review
"God is not here today, priest!" - Sergeant Major
Thirty one years ago, Fathers Lankester Merrin and Damien Karras performed an exorcism on a possessed young girl to rid her of the demon Pazuzu. The exorcism was a success, but it wasn't the first time Father Merrin had crossed paths with the demon.
In 1949, Father Merrin is haunted by horrific memories of the slaughter of members of his parish during World War II at the hands of the Nazis. Broken and disillusioned, he's lost his faith in God and left his native Holland hoping to forget all he has seen and make a new start traveling the world as an archeologist. While in Egypt, he is approached by an antiquities dealer and asked to head a British archeological expedition in the Turkana region of Kenya. A Byzantine church has been uncovered there in almost pristine condition leading them to suspect it had been buried just days after its completion. The dealer wants Merrin to retrieve a religious artifact from the church before the other archeologists discover it. An intrigued Merrin accepts the job, but once the archeologists begin their excavation, they discover a mysterious chamber directly beneath the church. As the excavation progresses, bizarre things begin to occur and the spooked local tribesmen refuse to return to the site. Madness and death begin to affect the villagers and Merrin is forced to relive the slaughter of innocents once again as he comes face to face with the demon Pazuzu.
In 1973, the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist opened amidst much controversy and loads of publicity. It was said to have caused vomiting, fainting and heart attacks in audience members and subsequent cinema showings saw ambulances and EMTs at the ready. Based on a true story, the film was about a single mother who enlists the aid of two priests to perform an exorcism on her twelve year old daughter when the girl becomes possessed by a demon. Nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the film was a critical and financial success and has been lauded as the scariest movie of all time. Two inferior sequels followed with John Boorman's 1977 Exorcist II: The Heretic and William Peter Blatty's 1990 The Exorcist III. Although Blatty's film is considered the better of the two sequels, neither one ever approached the excellence of the original.
Exorcist: The Beginning has been plagued with bad luck from day one. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was originally set to direct, but pulled out of the project a month before he died of a stroke following spinal surgery. His death left Warners in desperate need of another director and they eventually decided on Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). After he completed the film, the powers that be were unhappy with the finished product they considered more cerebral than frightening and unceremoniously fired Shrader replacing him with Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea). Harlin was given a bigger budget and ended up re-shooting ninety percent of the film, deleting characters and replacing cast members. But, even Harlin didn't escape the bad luck, as he was hit by a car shortly after filming started in Rome and spent the entire time on crutches with his leg in a cast.
Upon learning of Frankenheimer's death, Liam Neeson, who had been cast to star in the role made famous by Max von Sydow, left and was replaced with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (King Arthur). Skarsgård was an excellent choice for the younger Father Merrin, though ironically, he is almost 10 years older than von Sydow was 3 decades ago when he portrayed the aged version of the priest. Izabella Scorupco (GoldenEye) is the beautiful doctor Sarah Novack with a painful past who wants to help those in need in Keyna. James D'Arcy (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) is Father Francis, a young priest straight out of the Vatican on his way to do missionary work, until he is ordered to Keyna when the Vatican learns of the Church excavation. Alan Ford (Snatch) as Jeffries, Remy Sweeney as the young village boy Joseph, Ralph Brown and Ben Cross round out the cast.
Renny Harlin was faced with a monumental task - Warner Brothers, already disappointed by the shelved Schrader film, expected an even bigger and better gorefest from the Finnish director, but in his zeal to deliver the film they wanted, he overlooked the elements that made the first film so brilliant. In the original, William Friedkin shocked film goers with the horrific image of a possessed young Regan violating herself with a crucifix. In the prequel, Renny Harlin similarly uses children in horrific situations to shock his audience, but he uses them so often and gratuitously that it ends up losing its effectiveness. In the original, the pacing was slow and ominous - in the prequel things zip along with shocks at every turn. Harlin doesn't seem to understand that the secret to The Exorcist's success was not in what you saw, but what you didn't see. While the projectile vomiting and Mercedes McCambridge-voiced profanity were shocking, it was not knowing what lay in wait for Chris MacNeil as she climbed the stairs to her daughter's bedroom that was so horrifying. Harlin opted for loads of bad CGI and a high gore factor instead - among the highlights: a female Holocaust survivor who bleeds profusely from a vagina savaged by Nazis; a small boy ripped apart by hyenas, carnivorous crows who dine on eyeballs and the stillborn birth of a baby covered in maggots. He is also overly-fond of using loud sound effects, but his biggest sin is the climatic showdown - meant to be an homage to the original Exorcist and the film's saving grace, it unfortunately garners some of the biggest unintentional laughs.
While not the grand prequel he envisioned, Exorcist: The Beginning is better than either of the two previous sequels and it has some good scares. He does get a couple of other things right too: Vittorio Storaro's (Apocalypse Now) cinematography is darkly atmospheric and absolutely beautiful and the Trevor Rabin (Armageddon) score, while not on a par with Tubular Bells, is excellent. If the rumours are true, both the Harlin and Schrader versions will be included on the DVD.