Exorcist: The Beginning

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If you've been reading Horror Express regularly (and really why shouldn't you?), you already know about the long, tortured history of EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. It's one of the most troubled productions in film and gave us no shortage of news items. We even ran the first exclusive interview with screenwriter Caleb Carr and gave the first official word that original director Paul Schrader had indeed been sacked. You can read all about that right here. That one gave us our first mention in the "legitimate press" when it was quoted in an L.A. Weekly cover story - and no, I'm not about to let anyone forget that anytime soon.

Just to make sure we have all the bases covered, a quick recap: EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING went into pre-production under the direction of one of my all-time favorite directors, John Frankenheimer. He had to leave about a month before shooting started because of poor health and unfortunately, passed away soon afterward. He was replaced by Paul Schrader, another favorite of mine since he wrote the script to my number one all-time film, TAXI DRIVER. Having him direct a prequel to THE EXORCIST, my second favorite film and certainly favorite horror film, seemed like a match made in heaven. This would be his first horror film since his 1982 CAT PEOPLE remake, a film I personally love which stars Nastassja Kinski, whom I worship beyond all reason.

But if you believe the press, such was not the case. Schrader showed the suits at production company Morgan Creek his cut and they balked. They had asked for a horror film and what they got instead was a religious drama where the battle between good and evil was more psychological than anything else. Then reports about Schrader's reportedly difficult nature on the set, something he's known for, came out. After thinking it over, Morgan Creek decided the project could not be salvaged to their liking and they promptly fired Schrader. They had Caleb Carr's script completely re-written by Alexi Hawley and hired Renny Harlin (DEEP BLUE SEA, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT) to reshoot the film from scratch. Reportedly, not one frame of Schrader's film was used.

So what do we have? Naturally, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING has a lot working against it since many will judge it on the basis of what it isn't rather than what it is. It's a maelstrom and we will have to see all available cuts before anyone can give a fair response. So, there is only one thing I can safely say EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING isn't - it isn't bad at all.

If you've seen the original EXORCIST (and if you haven't, you should whip yourself, stop reading and see it immediately), Father Merrin was recommended to serve as Regan's exorcist due to a prior experience. This film tells that story, opening in East Africa. Much like Father Damian Karras would years later, Lancaster Merrin (Stellan Skarsg�rd, a veteran of Lars Von Trier's best films) has lost his faith. He is no longer a priest, walking away from the church after witnessing war atrocities in Nazi-occupied Europe. In a meeting that is oddly reminiscent of Belloq meeting with Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, a man (Ben Cross - CHARIOTS OF FIRE, DARK SHADOWS) approaches Merrin in a bar to enlist him unearthing a major archeological find. A church that has been partially unearthed in the African desert seems to predate all known records of Christianity in the area. Compelled by forces he doesn't want to understand, Merrin reluctantly agrees and heads to a small town where a fragile alliance exists between British settlers and native tribesmen.

Merrin enters the church, which appears to have been vandalized by anti-Christian groups in ages past, meaning it is perhaps not the find they expected. Or perhaps it is something more, since strange things have been happening ever since the church was excavated. Hyenas have been appearing around the border. Some of the natives have gone missing. More importantly, everyone's suspicions, tempers and fear have been heightened so that the entire settlement is continually at a boiling point. Things get worse and worse, even attacking a small child (Remy Sweeney) whose father has converted to Christianity. Throughout it all, Merrin struggles to hold onto his doubt and anger even in the face of the devil himself. And finally, he comes face to face with Pazuzu for the first time.

In Elie Weisel's heart-wrenching concentration camp memoir, NIGHT, he describes Auschwitz as a place where God was absent. This is the despair that is tapped into here. Just as Karras was lured away from the faith, Merrin was lured away from his. Merrin's crisis of faith stems not only from a feeling that God is absent from parts of the world, but guilt that he is partially to blame for that absence. He is a shell of a man when we first see him.

Some people may have their eyebrows raised by some of the supporting characters in the film. Sarah (Izabella Scorupco - GOLDENEYE, REIGN OF FIRE) is a doctor in the area and there is the definite spark of romance between her and Merrin. Don't worry, everything is handled with taste. In fact, Scorupco gives a very good performance and the backstory provided for her is one of the most interesting in the film.

Father Francis (James D'Arcy) represents the Vatican at the dig, the official story being that they want to make sure none of the sacred objects are compromised. This is one portion of the film that unfortunately never pans out and D'Arcy, who was great in last year's MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, seems lost here. His part seems to have been drastically reduced and he doesn't seem to have any direction. It is one of the casualties of a rushed and re-thought production.

Oh yes, there are a few casualties because of the last minute re-tooling. One that's getting all the press is the third act. It's still much more watchable than many other horror films this year, but it does not live up to the promise of EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING's first ninety minutes. Without giving anything away, I will just say that it is an overly simplified climax. After sitting through a film that has somehow not recycled any of the old standbys of the original, the final confrontation manages to drag out a slew of them. Not a horrible ending, but as a payoff it didn't have the same oomph as the rest of the picture.

Another major setback are the special effects. And here is where we have to bring up something important. All of the previous EXORCIST movies have had some notable special effects. In the original, it was done primarily with animatronics, wires and latex and the results were groundbreaking. It was also used to create the air of realism in the film's most critical moments. William Peter Blatty's brilliant and long underrated EXORCIST III also used effects primarily for quick scares - a person crawling on the ceiling or a blade nearly decapitating someone. But EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING marks the first time when the series has truly relied on CGI in order to convey the more horrific or action-packed sequences.

Yes, I said action-packed. Remember, this is Renny Harlin's cut of the film and fuss as you might, you're not going to get a slow burn like William Friedkin's EXORCIST. This is a horror thriller that relies on a steadily escalating series of punctuation marks. There is a lot of human drama here, touching on issues of religious tradition, crises of faith, guilt and shame over the past, plus a bit of racial and political tension. All of these are vital to the success of the film. However, first and foremost, this is in tune with a suspense thriller that involves solving a puzzle and facing off against the demonic forces of evil. It's so important that I have to shout it in caps: YOUR ENJOYMENT OF HARLIN'S CUT HINGES ON YOUR ACCEPTANCE OF THIS FACT. If you cannot get past this, you will most likely hate this film.

It's also much more violent than any of the other EXORCIST films. In fact, there is more gore in the first two minutes of EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING than there were in the entire two hours of THE EXORCIST. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, just something that is once again appropriate for this particular take on the film. Thankfully, all the model and makeup work looks fantastic. You have no trouble being drawn into the scene and convinced of their authenticity. Which is more than I can say for the other effects.

There is quite a bit of CGI here, from rolling sand to contorting demons. And none of it looks very good. It's as if they had the chance to put down the first layer, but the process in which they clean the effects up to make them look more convincing was tossed aside when they fell behind schedule. A pack of hyenas scares at first. But the more we see of them, the more they look like product of a Ray Harryhausen film. Not to knock Harryhausen, but he worked largely by himself, sculpting creatures frame by frame and his most recent film was twenty-three years ago. Now that we are in the age of computer technology, and that is the arena in which EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING has staked its claim, the results should have been much better.

Any other problems are minor. Trevor Rabin, a former member of one of my favorite bands (the band is Yes, and thanks for asking) does the music and it is thankfully better than many of his generic Bruckheimer scores. Still there are two many exclamations where a cloud crash of drums or keyboards must coincide with the latest scare.

Thankfully, the film has much more going for it than against it and that's a big surprise. Most of the acting, particularly on the parts of Skarsg�rd and Scorupco are exemplary. Skarsg�rd does an honorable homage to the beloved character who would later be embodied in a classic performance by Max Von Sydow. All the same, he makes the character his own with ease. There is nothing in his performance that would tarnish the reputation of the original EXORCIST. Scorupco was one of my favorite Bond girls in that she actually brought compassion, strength and personality to the roles long since dominated by bimbos and sadistic bitches. Scorupco brings similar dignity here and this is her best role yet.

Harlin's direction is much more subdued than one would expect even given a more events-oriented storyline. One would expect the script, re-written at the last minute, to fail on every level. But except for the already mentioned third act, it holds up surprisingly well.

Yes, it is possible that Shcrader's version could be better. Schrader has made some amazing films, most recently AUTO FOCUS. He's also made some truly horrible ones and if you don't believe me, go rent TOUCH, come back here and apologize. So which was his EXORCIST? We will never know until we see it and when we do, I'll write that one up as well. With months to get the film in shape, Harlin has pulled this one out of the fire. We've all seen from ALIEN VS. PREDATOR to just about any sequel released by Dimension how horrible many prequels and sequels can turn out, especially with an angry studio breathing down your neck.

Harlin's film isn't Friedkin's, and it isn't as good as Blatty's EXORCIST III. But it is surprisingly good. It's a solid horror film with just enough depth to keep us riveted in the characters as well as the story. If I may borrow a page from Unholy's book, it links to the original very well, and could potentially add new dimensions to that film.

In the end, Harlin's cut is a decent entry in the EXORCIST series and much better than it had any right to be.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis