Years before Father Lancaster Merrin helped save Regan MacNeil's soul, he first encounters the demon Pazuzu in East Africa. This is the tale of Father Merrin's initial battle with Pazuzu and the rediscovery of his faith.
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Damien the Antichrist, now thirteen years old, finally learns of his destiny under the guidance of an unholy disciple of Satan. Meanwhile dark forces begin to eliminate all those who suspect the child's true identity.
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Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Archeologist Lankester Merrin is asked to go to East Africa to excavate a church that has been found completely buried in sand. Merrin is also an ordained Roman Catholic priest who, still haunted by what he was forced to do during World War II in his native Holland, eschews any religion or belief. He's fascinated by what he finds and that it dates hundred of years before Christianity was introduced to the area. Accompanied by a young priest, Father Francis, to keep an eye on the religious elements of what they find, Merrin makes his way to the camp. There he meets a young doctor, Sarah and soon realizes there is an air of gloom that envelops the entire site. Workmen go mad and a young boy is mauled by a pack of hyenas while completely ignoring his younger brother Joseph. Inside the church itself they find signs of desecration. Merrin is forced to re-examine his lack of faith and come face to face with the devil. Written by
After a prologue showing a priest walking through the results of an astonishing massacre, we meet a young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) not long after he's abandoned his faith and is considering himself an archaeologist rather than a priest. Merrin is asked in his new capacity to travel to British East Africa, where a Christian church has been discovered 1500 years older than any church in the area should be. He's specifically asked to find a particular relic/statue--of Pazuzu, the infamous demon from the Exorcist films. The bulk of Exorcist: The Beginning has Merrick in what has come to be known as Kenya, exploring the bizarre occurrences surrounding the town where the church is located, the other European residents, the natives, and of course the church itself.
Series note: Since this is well set up as a prequel, I recommend watching Exorcist: The Beginning as the first film in the series. There is no need to watch any of the other Exorcist films before you see this one.
This film is getting knocked a lot, but I can't help thinking that much of it might stem from the fact that Morgan Creek initially had Paul Schrader shoot the film, then canned the result when he turned in his cut. It was said that they believed Schrader's version wasn't "visceral" enough. So they hired Renny Harlin to direct and had a completely new script written, although one still based on novelist Caleb Carr's initial treatment, which he wrote after finding an older script that had been languishing in Morgan Creek's vaults, or "tomb", as he calls it (Carr has been employed as a "script polisher" for Morgan Creek). In any event, I agree that Morgan Creek's actions were loathsome, especially their eventual decision to not include Schrader's version on the same DVD as Harlin's (initially they had promised this, but it seems that they have some other scheme in mind for trying to recoup some of the money sunk into the fiasco). But I don't agree that Morgan Creek's actions make Harlin's film bad by association. It isn't. In fact, this is an excellent film that comes just short of being a 10 out of 10.
Harlin's effort certainly is visceral--wonderfully so. He lets us know this from the first frames by showing us the haggard priest's face overbaked by desert sun and wind and then pulling back to a wider shot showing the massacred bodies. The film has an incredible visual style. The gorier aspects are extremely well done--always servicing the story and having maximum impact. The special effects are often subtle and for my money, the sparse use of cgi (most noticeably with the hyenas) is handled brilliantly.
The current trend towards monochromatic cinematography is strongly present, but rather than overused blues, Harlin has cinematographer Vittorio Storaro embed us in browns/sepia tones and grays with many scenes having very deep shadows. Harlin has said that he was aiming for the look at the end of Apocalypse Now (1979), when Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) finally encounters Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Kurtz' compound. It was probably no accident then that Storaro was chosen, as he was also the cinematographer on that Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece. Amusingly, Harlin and Storaro reference Apocalypse Now many times during Exorcist: The Beginning. For example, we get shots looking at Father Merrin from above a ceiling fan. One sequence is even constructed similarly to the opening scene of Apocalypse Now and ends with Father Merrin breaking a mirror.
But Harlin references all of the Exorcist films to date as well. This helps integrate Exorcist: The Beginning into the mythos of the series, deepening the stylistic and subtextual ties. The bulk of The Beginning can be scene as an extension of the middle section of John Boorman's severely under-appreciated Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). Although the details may have been changed, The Beginning's plot is very similar to Merrin's trek to Africa to explore a mysterious church in Boorman's film. The only thing lamentably missing is a reference to locusts, or the locust man. Harlin also gives us an excellent asylum scene and more subtle nurse references that are reminiscent of The Exorcist III (1990). And of course there are numerous references to the "big daddy", The Exorcist (1973). These range from admirable small details, such as the supernaturally halting pendulum, to major plot elements, such as Pazuzu and a possessed woman looking and sounding very similar to a pea soup-vomiting Regan (Linda Blair).
Although an artistic triumph, Harlin may have chosen a hurdled route in presenting a film that is often "difficult". He doesn't pander to shortened attention spans or a need for a clearly linear, simple plot line. The pacing of many scenes is not what most viewers would expect, but it's always right for the scene, at least in retrospect. The cast turns in complex performances, and Harlin requires that you pay rapt attention to visual cues--silence is often stretched while narrative is conveyed in a manner closer to a silent film. Part of Harlin's more studied approach may have been due to an attempt to bridge the style and language of film-making circa 1973 with modern sensibilities. Whatever the motivation, it works, but Exorcist: The Beginning isn't exactly a "popcorn film".
The most obvious themes and subtexts are those related to faith and the nature of evil, but Exorcist: The Beginning also has interesting things to say about European colonization and domination of non-European cultures and religious and other cultural appropriation/absorption of preexisting Others. The latter subtext is interestingly present in a very literal way in the church that is the focus of the film.
But the primary attraction is the emotionally dark face of Exorcist: The Beginning, and its comfortable place in a very unusual series of films. Don't let Hollywood's behind-the-scenes blunders dissuade you, this is a film that deserves to be watched and appreciated.
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