Exorcist: The Beginning

How else do you explain Exorcist: The Beginning, a belated prequel (shades of Alien Vs. Predator) that serves no purpose except to exploit the good will of the original?

As someone who considers The Exorcist the best film ever made (perhaps that explains a lot, then again), everything else in the series is a pale imitation. Exorcist II: The Heretic was an albino, and Exorcist: The Beginning is so transparent it exists only as a distant reminder of William Friedkin’s classic.

Foretold in Exorcist II, Father Merrin (originally Max Von Sydow) first encounters the Demon Pazuzu in Africa circa 1949, at a Kenyan archaeological dig that unearths a buried millennium-old church. Now a defrocked priest working in an alcoholic haze, Merrin (now Stellan Skarsgard), accompanied by Father Francis (James D’Arcy) agrees to examine the ruins.

Under the guidance of British Army Major Granville (Julian Wadham), Merrin and Francis arrive at the village, where they encounter overworked local doctor Sarah Novack ( Izabella Scorupco). Once the scene of a plague, villagers blame mounting fears and tragedies (hyenas shredding children) on the discovery of the church and an ancient evil.

That’s the problem with Exorcist: The Beginning. Everything feels ancient. It’s as if Harlin and his team of writers (Alexi Hawley, story by William Wisher Jr. and Caleb Carr) decided to replicate everything that worked in the first film.

Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, but what Harlin does to the Exorcist legend isn’t very pretty. It’s a garish exercise in cheap shocks that is so over-the-top it feels like one of those absurd anti-Halloween church productions.

Which is pretty much the way Harlin approaches every shot in Exorcist: The Beginning. The film looks terrific (credit brilliant cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Apocalypse Now), but it’s what Harlin does within the frame that robs the film of any true suspense. Harlin’s resume (Driven, Cutthroat Island, Die Hard 2) confirms a director who likes to blow things up, including emotions. You won’t subtlety in Harlin’s dictionary.

So instead of making a thought-provoking think piece supported by shock effects, Harlin makes a shocker that rarely takes time to formulate an original thought. Did Harlin believe that 30 years would be enough to distance audiences from a film that left an indelible stain on society? A film so seamless and sturdy that it grossed $100 million in a recent re-release? A film that literally changed the landscape of horror films by never underestimating audience intelligence?

What’s amazing is that Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is actually the second stab at bringing the story to the screen. A completely different version, directed by Paul Schrader and starring Skarsgard, was shot and shelved after executives found it too literal, Hollywood speak for not enough barf and spinning heads.

Well, those executives got exactly what they wanted with Harlin, who isn’t afraid to go the distance when it comes to making audiences feel uncomfortable. Harlin’s one truly brilliant moment as a director came at the beginning of Cliffhanger when rescue ranger Sylvester Stallone attempts to save a woman from falling. Harlin’s placement of camera, the way he was able to evoke a true sense of danger and death, made the scene and the eventual outcome unbearable and painful.

That’s how I feel about Exorcist: The Beginning, but not in a good way. Instead of being swept into the story, you feel like part of a tour group being rushed through an exhibit. This film is all point and look. There are no surprises, just expectations, most of which are diminished. It’s difficult to blame the actors, who are required to jump through Harlin’s flaming hoop. Most of them, especially Skarsgard and D’Arcy, make it through without getting burned.

I can’t say the same for audiences, most who will be familiar with the original and will find this prequel more of an afterthought than a serious addition to the franchise.


Exorcist Prequel Not The Start of Something New


Stellan Skarsgard, James D’Arcy, Izabella Scorupco, Remy Sweeney, Julian Wadham. Directed by Renny Harlin. Rated R. 112 Minutes.


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