In the 1973 film The Exorcist, several priests meet up to determine who will hold the exorcism for little Regan McNeil (Linda Blair). Father Lancaster Merrin is subsequently nominated for the job, and it is mentioned that he did an exorcism ten or fifteen years prior in Africa that “nearly killed him”. Fast forward to 2004 where we are given the new film Exorcist: The Beginning, which takes place in 1949 Kenya...take a wild guess as to what the focus of this movie is about.
Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) has lost his faith after the psychological atrocities he endured during World War II. He now resides in Egypt as an archeologist for hire. His world is thrown into upheaval when he takes a job that leads him to Kenya to dig up an unknown church and find an ancient artifact (which has a striking resemblance to what Merrin digs up in the beginning of the original in Northern Iraq). Upon his excavation of the church all sorts of horrific occurrences begin. Nazis, Hyenas, and Maggot Babies, Oh My! All of which ultimately lead to his total redemption and righteous path towards his true calling.
It has been thirty one years since Linda Blair originally scared the holy Hell out of us and fourteen years since the last sequel which featured a cameo from frickin’ Fabio. One would have thought the Exorcist franchise had seen its “End of Days”, having been milked to the last drop. That brings us here to the good ol’ new millennium; whereby studio executives have the tendency to flip a coin when deciding whether or not to do a remake or make a prequel. Well, after a successful director’s cut re-release of the original film (now dubbed with The Version You Haven’t Seen) back in the fall of 2000, Warner Brothers green lit this prequel, which itself seemed doomed from the start. Originally the film was slated for release some time in 2002 and then was delayed until summer 2003. The flick still wasn’t done, so WB canned director Paul Schraeder (American Gigalo) and hired someone Finnish to finish. Renny Harlin (Cutthroat Island) stepped in and pulled it all together. Re-shot some stuff, edited it all together and delivered a product. It is unclear as to who really directed what in this movie. Harlin gets the credit, but I for one can’t put any of the film’s flaws on him. Instead I’ll rip on screenwriter Alexi Hawley.
With no other real film credit to his name, Hawley was tapped for the job. How does one follow in the footsteps of the Academy Award winning script for William Peter Blatty? The gore the merrier. The franchise up until this point has all been psychosomatic thrillers that delve into one specific character’s spirituality. This chapter is an all out gore fest that would make Mel Gibson blush. Now all the flesh gouging isn’t really that bad, but sometimes it goes just the slightest bit too far (coughcoughMaggot Babycoughcough). This movie is catering to all the fans of the original but tries to bring the theme up to date, complete with a kid creepily whispering another character’s prophecy as well as the horror movie staple of a hot chick entering a shower all alone which leads to an “Is anybody there” suspense sequence. Exorcist: The Beginning is simultaneously stereotypical and shocking to watch.
Exorcist II: The Heretic features various flashbacks to Father Merrin in Africa. Nothing from that film even resembles what went on here. Fanboys might say it happened in between The Beginning and the original but I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. The Exorcist III has nothing to do with The Heretic, but makes sense within the confines of it happening afterwards. If part II didn’t exist...then maybe Exorcist: The Beginning would be quite well off. Still, continuatively, this is a mess as a whole. That idol he found is in Iraq in The Exorcist...how did it get from Kenya to Iraq? Maybe there are two of them, but it is never explained. This isn’t good prequel logic. Even George Lucas and Bret Rattner have decent finger on the pulse of prequel logic.
To highlight the film’s good points, Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting) does a very nice job picking up the role originated by Max von Sydow. Max von Sydow’s portrayal of Father Merrin gave a lot for Skarsgård to work with as an actor.. Skarsgård captivates the screen when he is on it and you can easily get lost in his scenes. Merrin only book ended the original; here we get to see him in action. This is his movie. The rest of the cast is slightly forgettable. Scorupco and Skarsgård do have good chemistry, which makes the film’s climax a treat to watch. The two won’t get any notoriety from this project, but at least they made it watchable.
There hasn’t been one Exorcist movie that hasn’t made me jump out of my seat yet. In this case, the streak still stands. Though there are a plethora of “jumps” in the film, only a couple really caught me. The rest are predictable horror movie clichés. The first film crawls under your skin and eats away at you, the second is a weird acid trip, and the third brings the series back to its roots; this prologue to the “trilogy” is not a bonus, nor is it a defect, but rather just something that is meagerly satisfactory. Insufficient or not, it’s slightly scary...which is better than most modern day horror flicks.
If you want to see this movie to rekindle old memories of the original, you might get what you came for. You will be scared, and you’ll get the whole good versus evil/God versus the Devil thing. For those who haven’t seen The Exorcist, by all means enjoy. But stop off at Blockbuster on your way home. All the advertisements from the film get 50% of their material from the original, so if those hooked you that’s even more reason to check it out. I’m still having a hard time classifying whether I like this version or not.
Exorcist: The Beginning is scary, boring, chilling, confusing, blood curdling, and disgusting. It’s a fifty-fifty shot, you will either love it or hate it. I find myself stuck somewhere in the middle. I entered the theatre biting my nails and exited scratching my head. I just hope this doesn’t mean the series is up and running again.
Reviewed By: Bill Beyrer