Sometimes there are movies out there in the world that make you think about not only your life, but also life in general. We wonder at the meaning of this world and the people we come into contact with and the ones we don’t. There are even films that delve into spirituality, religion, and the ultimate conflict between pure good and pure evil. Exorcist was one of those, where every aspect of the story and every image on the screen can be read into and used for a reason. Exorcist: The Beginning tried hard to be an addition of the same caliber, but in the end, there seems to be no difference in the messages of God and the Devil: both work in Hollywood and equally like the use of gore and fake blood without meaning.
Exorcist: The Beginning goes back in time to explore the life of Father Merrin (who appears at the end of the original film from ’73) and how it came to pass that he had become The Exorcist. The first scene in the movie shows an ancient priest walking through the total carnage of a sandy battlefield until he finds the body of another priest. Next we fast forward to 1949 and find Merrin who recently lost his faith during WWII, and has since taken up archaeology. He is sent, along with a young priest, to explore an ancient but newly uncovered supposed church in Africa from 35AD that appears to have been buried the day after it was built. The problem with this “church” is that no one is willing to enter it and horrific bloody deaths happen to those that do.
Where the movie goes sour is that, while all the elements of a great story are present, it’s simply spread too thin. The pulp of The Exorcist has been watered down for Exorcist: The Beginning. I didn’t feel involved in battling unknown demons, I felt trapped into making it to the end of the movie. And, while the special effects were better than the original, they still weren’t as good as they could have been for today’s standards. I mean, come on, if I can fully believe I’m watching thousands of Orcs fight trees in Lord of the Rings, then one possessed person and couple of hyenas shouldn’t be that hard.
My other issues are the similarities and imagery that are shown but not explained or given a reason other than repetition. For example, the priest in The Exorcist lost his faith, became a psychiatrist, and then came around in time to do good. Father Merrin here in The Beginning has also lost his faith, changed careers to archeology, and finds Christ again in time to do good. Don’t get me wrong, I like the similarity, I just want to see the significance of characters like this to the story. Next, it is explained that the opening scene was a battle with two priests, one of which dies while the other defeats evil. Same thing in Beginning. Same thing in The Exorcist. It's not bad to see the parallel, but explain to the viewer why two priests and a great fight is religiously important. So, instead of confirming a lot of the aspects of the first film, this one seems redundant. I know they were trying to show the films as a whole collection, but it came off as though Alexi Hawley stalled out in writing the story, popped in The Exorcist, and pulled out anything that could be used again to attempt to connect the two.
Also, there are lots of crows and hyenas, as well as flies. Why? Why those animals? Is there a specific reason or is it just so we can hear the sounds of cawing and howling from the first two films and then be able to overuse maggots on dead (and half-dead) things with flies? (You know how people react to maggots…throw some more on; they’ll love the movie now!) Along with these questions, there were too many stabs (sorry for the pun) at building tension and showing gore. As soon as the music begins to build, like a good little moviegoer, you anticipate something will happen, and…it does. Every time. Hey, directors of the world, if it happens every time, you lose the illusion of suspense!
Where Beginning can be appreciated is through what is actually fairly good acting and the film's cinematography. There are some beautiful shots and angles used, great editing, and several sweeps where you see something but when you come back, the image has changed. Such as one scene where a cross hangs on the wall while a priest is praying. When he opens his eyes, the cross is upside-down. He straightens it, leaves, and when he shuts the door, the reflection in the mirror is of the cross upside-down again. Another case is when a man is pinning a dead moth to a board for his collection, he looks up for a moment, and when he looks down again the moth is now a dead crow covered in blood. Nice touches like that are the only thing that really saves this film, if you can call that a save. The disappointment here is that the quality of where the material was coming from was great, but the story and dialogue were too focused on shock and fake blood. Like many movies today, Exorcist: The Beginning seems to have been made with ticket sales in mind, instead of the creation of a lasting film that doesn’t overindulge itself with target audiences or overdone effects to draw a short-lived crowd.
There aren’t many extras on this disc and maybe that’s a good thing. The trailer, like so many of them, makes the film look like it will be really good but at least doesn’t go so far as to practically give away the whole movie in three minutes. A behind-the-scenes featurette is only about ten minutes long and is really nothing but the actors saying what their character is about. It doesn’t do much for the movie at all. And finally, (that’s right, "finally" , because that’s all there is on the disc) we have the director’s commentary track.
The commentary isn’t bad. Harlin isn’t out to explain the film to try to make viewers understand it better. He just talks about the filming process, their time line, why they chose the actors they did, etc. So if you like the movie, the commentary is really worth checking out because it’s not repetitive of what you’ve already seen and it’s not trying to make sense of the film either. It is a good addition to what’s there.
While there aren’t many extras here, I honestly can’t say I’d like to see anything else. Yeah, I feel let down in a way, but I don’t really want to spend much more time with it anyhow. About the only thing they could have added to improve the disc would be a Discovery Channel-ish look at the history of exorcisms, the church, and demons, or something like that, but if it doesn’t relate to the story, then there’s no point anyway. With our without that, the disc makes a nice coaster, though.