Exorcist: The Beginning

Exorcist: The Beginning
The Exorcist movie series is not so much a franchise as a perpetual going-out-of-business sale. There are now four official Exorcist films and many more imitations. The Exorcist (1973), written by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, was truly one of the scariest movies ever made, for it portrayed a confrontation by humans with true evil rather than the monsters, mummies, ghosts and living dead that populate most horror films. Since then, however, audiences have been treated to the usual off-the-rack horror nonsense with the Exorcist label misleadingly attached to the titles. Exorcist: The Beginning continues the practice of false advertising.

Yes, the Exorcist imprint will draw enough young males for a solid opening week. Once word gets out that this movie makes Alien vs. Predator look like a classic, boxoffice could drop 50% or more.

The scariest thing about this film is how desperate the makers are to earn a scream. Clearly lacking confidence in a prosaic premise, director Renny Harlin and writers Alexi Hawley, William Wisher Jr. and Caleb Carr try out just about every gag they can think of: From a meaningless opening sequence featuring severed limbs and upside-down crucifixes on a battlefield, the movie indulges in facial boils, blood-sucking leeches, maggots on a stillborn baby, squirting blood, buzzing flies, two suicides, a bird plucking out a human eye and mad hyenas tearing apart of small boy. And when all else fails, they throw in a shower scene and sandstorm.

This was the film that found Morgan Creek making two versions. Paul Schrader shot and finished an edit of his The Beginning in May 2003. When Morgan Creek topper James Robinson rejected this film, Schrader departed and Harlin was brought aboard. Reportedly, little if anything from Schrader's version appears in Harlin's film.

Like the lamentable John Boorman film Exorcist II: The Heretic, this film too rolls back the clock to investigate the first confrontation between Father Merrin, the aging exorcist in the original film, and the devil in British colonial Africa, an incident alluded to in Friedkin's film and Blatty's best-selling novel. Stellan Skarsgard, who, remarkably, stars in both Schrader and Harlin's movies, plays Merrin as a disillusioned ex-priest, drifting through Cairo in 1949 in an alcoholic haze. A mysterious antiquities collector (Ben Cross) approaches him about joining an archaeological dig in a remote region in Kenya, where British authorities have discovered a buried Christian Byzantine church in a place where no church from that era should exist.

Merrin arrives at the site to learn people are disappearing, wild hyenas circle the compound and villagers believe an evil force lurks within the church. He is accompanied by a young and eager priest (James D'Arcy) whose belief in God is so mighty you know he is doomed. Merrin finds more in common with Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco), one of those selfless souls who can do good deeds without ever mussing her makeup or perfectly coifed hair.

Father Merrin -- oops, make that Mr. Merrin -- and Dr. Sarah Share a Holocaust background. She is a concentration camp survivor, while he left the church after witnessing Nazi atrocities in his native Holland.

The remainder of the movie is taken up with bad nightmares, living nightmares of strange doings in the devil's playground and hideous deaths experienced by several characters. The soundtrack is more alarming than the hyenas as every sound is amplified and ominous choral music pounds away. From time to time, Merrin feels the urge to search -- alone -- inside the church or go digging in the nearby graveyard. He always does so in the dead of night. Guess he doesn't want to wake anybody up.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro makes the whole look much better than it deserves, while designer Stefano Maria Ortolani does an amazing job of creating an African desert, old Cairo and wintry Holland on the backlots of Rome's famed Cinecitta Studios.

This is the kind of film that mysteriously vanishes from most participants' resumes. In this instance, they can always fall back on Flip Wilson's old line and claim that "the devil made me do it."

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING

Warner Bros. Pictures

Morgan Creek

Credits:

Director: Renny Harlin

Screenwriter: Alexi Hawley

Story by: William Wisher Jr., Caleb Carr

Producer: James G. Robinson

Executive producers: Guy McElwaine, David C. Robinson

Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro

Production designer: Stefano Maria Ortolani

Music: Trevor Rabin

Costume designer: Luke Reichle

Editors: Mark Goldblatt, Todd E. Miller

Cast:

Father Merrin: Stellan Skarsgard

Father Francis: James D'Arcy

Dr. Sarah Novack: Izabella Scorupco

Joseph: Remy Sweeney

Major Granville: Julian Wadham

MPAA rating: R

Running time -- 112 minutes

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