Any sequel or prequel to William Friedkin's seminal 1973 horror classic, "The Exorcist," is facing an uphill battle. While every film deserves to be viewed as its own entity, a follow-up to such an influential motion picture unavoidably warrants comparison, particularly when the subject matter involved is congruent in nature. As such, 1977's John Boorman-directed "Exorcist II: The Heretic" was a gorgeous-looking disaster, a bottom-of-the-barrel excuse to ratchet a few extra dollars out of the public. Based on his own novel, "Legion," William Peter Blatty's 1990 thriller, "The Exorcist III," was a more affectionate cinematic continuation, confident enough to tell a fresh story while staying true to its source material. Best of all, it was disturbing in an indelibly creepy kind of way, featuring one of the all-time great jump-out-of-your-seat moments in memory (set in a hospital corridor).
"Exorcist: The Beginning," which may be the only studio picture in history to have been reshot in its near-entirety (90% of it, at least) after the original cut was already put together, has had a sordid, troubled history. The vision of the original director, Paul Schrader (1997's "Affliction
"), was allegedly one of a more psychological, dramatic nature, and has been rumored to be getting a future DVD release. Schrader's version, however, was not what studio Warner Brothers had in mind, and so filmmaker Renny Harlin (2001's "Driven
") and first-time screenwriter Alexi Hawley were hired to give the prequel another go. The script was overhauled, new characters were supposedly added, casting changes abound, all in hopes of delivering the more violent, visceral experience that audiences would be expecting. Schrader's version has yet to be seen by the public, but it will be interesting to contrast the two different film's pros and cons when it does come to DVD.
For now, the official theatrical edition of "Exorcist: The Beginning" is a polished horror-drama thick in shivery atmosphere but low on plausibility, its involving, unhurried storytelling a refreshing reproach to today's usually fast, edit-hungry MTV style. Director Renny Harlin draws viewers in with precision as he gradually sets up his premise and the major characters, all the while stacking up a level of felt dread over the proceedings. The first hour of "Exorcist: The Beginning" surprises in how well it actually works, both as a character study of Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) and as a psychological suspenser, particularly considering the problems it faced during the production and editing phases. Then, almost with the flicker of a frame, the movie begins to implode as its concentration switches from an original, religious-based, thinking-man's horror pic to a gory pale imitation of the original.
Plagued by memories of the atrocities he witnessed in his native Holland during World War II, Father Merrin has lost much of his faith and, subsequently, given up his priesthood. Passing through Cairo, Egypt, circa 1949, Merrin is approached by an antiquities collector to join the British excavation of a Christian Byzantine church in the deserts of Kenya and bring back an ancient relic believed to be buried inside. Merrin joins wet-behind-the-ears Father Francis (James D'Arcy) on the mission, but entering into the church, believed to have been mysteriously buried immediately after it was built, unleashes a satanic evil that threatens to destroy the lives of everyone it comes in contact with. As 8-year-old Kenyan boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) grows progressively ill and caring nurse Sarah (Izabella Scorupco) feels powerless in the wake of these dark forces, Merrin must face the church's power and the history of the malevolent land it was built on if he is to stop the evil before it is too late.
The silly, over-the-top plot developments mount the further "Exorcist: The Beginning" journeys toward its messy climax. The third-act, coincidentally, which sinks the relatively classy opening half, is also the most glaring addition of reshoots. At this point, all logic is thrown out the church windows in favor of a revelation that was clearly never thought out on the script page and is only there to rehash the stirring, unforgettable exorcism finale of the 1973 predecessor. Mimicking the look, sound, and dialogue of Linda Blair's possessed Regan, the treatment of the overtaken party this time and Merrin's predictable exorcism theatrics strip away the tension and become a broad embarrassment bordering on spoof. For a motion picture to set itself up as an intelligent study in faith and redemption only to dissolve into a blood-strewn slasher flick by the final thirty minutes feels like a betrayal, the result of a big studio preferring mindless violence as entertainment rather than something deeper and more thought-provoking to chew on.
For much of its running-time, though, "Exorcist: The Beginning" is a favorable throwback to the Oscar-winning original, truthful to Friedkin's inclination toward realistic characters and dilemmas over exploitation. In telling of Father Merrin's very first encounter with possession, Stellan Skarsgård (2003's "Dogville
") masterfully fills the shoes of Max Von Sydow's portrayal thirty-one years ago. Skarsgård is sympathetic without pushing it, flawed without being unlikable, and emotionally riveting as the conflicted Father Merrin. The tragic flashbacks to Holland during WWII are naturally integrated into the main story and quite effective, helping to externalize an internal battle. As Sarah, Izabella Scorupco (2002's "Reign of Fire
") fulfills her limited role with self-confidence and shares some nice moments of low-key chemistry with Skarsgård. The rest of the performances, including James D'Arcy (2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
"), as Father Francis, and newcomer Remy Sweeney, as young Joseph, are forgettable.
"Exorcist: The Beginning" lacks the warmth of emotions and characters that danced around the edges of the otherwise pitch-dark "The Exorcist" and ultimately missteps by trying to impersonate superior scenes from that film. Meanwhile, in its views of the tribal Africans and buzzing insects, the picture comes alarmingly close to recalling the notoriously bad hooey found in "Exorcist II: The Heretic," a comparison no filmmaker would ever want to achieve. "Exorcist: The Beginning" is a step above that first sequel, indeed, and director Renny Harlin keeps things afloat for as long as he can with a handful of competent thrills and chills. At its core, however, is a sincereand sincerely problematicfilm that may have been shot twice, but deserved a third try to get things right. When "Exorcist: The Beginning" finally derails into ludicrousness, it never manages to reclaim the promisingly-honed track it initially rode in on.