An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · August 20, 2004, 7:08 PM EDT
Exorcist the Beginning

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 20, 2004, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

How ironic it is that a movie about a crisis of faith should be handled with so little of it by its producing entity. I have no idea how good or bad the original version of Exorcist: The Beginning, directed by Paul Schrader and rejected by Morgan Creek, turned out to be, but upon viewing the edition helmed by Renny Harlin that hit theaters today, it’s clear that Schrader was a better choice for this material. Harlin has proven himself as a filmmaker who can create big, dumb-to-fairly-smart action, but subtext-laden character studies aren’t really his forte. Working from a muddled script by Alexi Hawley, he delivers a film that will no doubt spell Exorcist: The End.

One of the challenges confronting anyone making an Exorcist film is the fact that both the studio and audiences are going to expect there to be an exorcism, and thus a possessed person, and there aren’t too many ways to deliver those elements without simply rehashing William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s 1973 classic. The gambit here is to dramatize the early events in the life of Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård, in the role originated by Max von Sydow), whose previous encounter with evil was only hinted at in the first film. As this movie presents it (in early scenes far too reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark), Merrin is an archaeologist working in Cairo, having given up his priestly faith after a terrible incident involving the Nazis during WWII. When he’s called to investigate an ancient church uncovered by a dig in British East Africa, the unleashing of a demonic power forces him to confront his views of evil and reconsider whether to renew his trust in God.

At least, that’s the idea. But while the script pays lip service to these concepts, it’s all telling and very little showing. The actual themes of religious devotion are given short shrift, and the theological debate that makes movies like this either compelling, entertaining or both is sadly lacking. Merrin is joined by a young priest, Father Francis (James D’Arcy), who might have served as an effective sounding board, but Francis is given so little to do that he barely exists as a character. More screen time is given to Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a nurse who might tempt Merrin even further away from his former priestly vows, and an Ugly Australian (Alan Ford) who leches after her (and is even uglier thanks to a recently acquired skin disease). When the subject of evil does come up, Merrin simply dismisses it as “a purely human condition inside all of us”—or more colorfully, when told of a previous incident of demonically debauched nuns, “Having orgies with goats didn’t make them possessed, just horny—and imaginative.”

Had more of the dialogue or incidents been that amusingly overstated, Exorcist: The Beginning might have at least achieved a certain sacrilegious entertainment value. Harlin treats this all very seriously, though, applying a somber tone and a stark look (alternating between sun-baked and darkness-soaked, both captured quite well by the gifted cinematographer Vittorio Storaro). The result is a movie that drags when it should intrigue, and contains more than its share of pedestrian horror tactics: ravens suddenly cawing their way into shots, slow-motion glass shattering, altered Christian iconography, etc. Those who lamented the PG-13-ness of this month’s Alien vs. Predator will be happy to learn that the gore quotient is pretty high here, and one setpiece, in which a tribal exorcism goes awry, does rate fairly high on the shock-value scale.

Yet there’s little sense of greater dread, of ancient mysteries unfolding, of a true dark power threatening Merrin and everyone around him. The visceral punch of Dick Smith’s makeup FX in the ’73 film is replaced in some scenes here with artificial-looking CGI that robs them of any scares. Hawley’s script piles on the incidents, which distract from rather than illuminate Merrin’s character, and throws in a pair of latecoming plot twists that don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Worst of all is the climactic exorcism itself, which plays like a foul-mouthed Saturday Night Live spoof of the Friedkin/Blatty film. At one point, Merrin tries to dispel the devilish influence by administering a sort of holy head-butt.

Schrader’s crack at this story reportedly opened by dramatizing the terrible confrontation with the Nazis that spurred Merrin to leave the church; here, it’s doled out in flashbacks. Knowing why Merrin abandoned his faith from the beginning might have made his crisis stronger, but here, as it is throughout Harlin’s movie, technique is emphasized over depth. (And like many moments in the film, the Nazi scenes put an uncomfortable emphasis on children suffering and being killed, even for a movie that follows up one focusing on the defiling of an innocent young girl.) We’re supposed to gain more insight into Merrin from Exorcist: The Beginning, but it ends up telling us nothing we didn’t already know from its vastly superior predecessor.