Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
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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.
While not a true horror movie, I really enjoyed The Beginning. I've watched it many times and found it very suspenseful. It kept my attention. I enjoyed the actors and the story. I've watched it over ten times and the scenes where Father M had to choose those to die? Chilling. Who wouldn't lose faith? The boy being torn apart? There were some good scenes.
In Harlin's "remake", we get a smart young priest, straight from the Vatican (James D'Arcy) who has received all the information about the buried church in advance. In "Dominion", Gabriel Mann played an innocent priest who does not expect anything terrible, he just wants to start a school in the middle of Africa. The latter was the better screenplay idea in my opinion, because D'Arcy is such a cool "professional" that we don't really care about him, whereas Mann was a character the audience loves for his human feelings. Also there is more mystery in "Domionion" whereas "Beginning" once explained the whole background, and that was it - too easy.
"Beginning" has a lot more gory effects, swarms of ugly insects and its demon uses obscenities in same way Linda Blair did in the original "Exorcist" movie. This will probably entertain people who just want a horror movie and nothing else. Mind you, "Beginning" also has good photography, a few unforgettable moments like the battlefield at the beginning and good actors! But the release of the original version "Dominion" proved that the story has had more potential, Schrader worked more careful with the characters and their relationships and gave more food for thought. I voted 6/10 for "Beginning" and 8/10 for "Dominion".
The film really falls down on the character side, as we never really get to know any of them and with the possible slight exception of the lead; not a single one has any depth. That's unimportant, however, as this film's main focus is definitely the atmosphere; and it's suitably malevolent throughout, which does the film no end of favours. The action is very slow, especially for the first hour, but it hardly matters as watching the plot bathe in the atmosphere is always entertaining enough, and while it is slow you can always count on something to happen that will get the excitement levels back up. The film features several shocking and disturbing sequences, my personal favourite being the hyena attack; with the stillborn birth coming a close second. The CGI in the film leaves a lot to be desired, especially on the aforementioned hyena attack, but the effects aren't too much of an important element anyway. When the film boils down to it's ending is when it really lets rip, and the final fifteen minutes or so deliver some really great horror. While this film doesn't even nearly touch the original; it's much better than you would think considering all the turmoil surrounding the release and on the whole I give it a thumbs up!
I believe that the characters presented by Schrader are far more simple and naive, lacking depth and intenseness into their roles. The only people that have fear of the church are the (Tikati), whereas in Hanlin's at least the young priest has knowledge and some fear of the powers in play.
Schrader's version does do a better job extending the description of the ritual execution of the British soldiers in the church, however the church itself lacks the presence and ambiance of holiness.
Schrader's Satan is to Buddhist looking and the use of the red-eyes is lame at best.
Harlin's use of the lady doctor and her husband are absolutely perfect and highly unexpected. Excellent job.
While I can't consider the Beginning to be a true prequel to the original, it's story is by far easier to fall into than Schrader's.
Choosing between Beginning v. Dominion is easy...
Dominion = Concept to be sold to the studio Executives as in a pilot
Beginning = Final Cut and masterfully acted.
The movie was The Exorcist, the horror film about a possessed child that took the world by storm in 1973. Those of us lucky enough to see the film in a packed theatre or to have lived through its release will never forget the experience. News about paramedics being on hand in major cities to handle the panic stricken and reports of people fainting in theaters were rampant. Religious leaders like Billy Graham condemned the film claiming the movie itself to be possessed by the devil and there were rumors of a curse put upon the production crew that grew increasingly elaborate with every broken telephone connection.
All the hype and hysteria lead to buckets and buckets of cash for the Warner Bros. Studio and then two inferior sequels (which seem to be the right of passage for a film in this genre). Restored in 2003, director William Friedkin added some 'never-before-seen' footage and re-released The Exorcist theatrically. Its second run scared up another $40 million to add to its already impressive cume.
So based on a franchise that fizzled out with the third installment in 1990 only to be resurrected with the 30-year anniversary DVD edition of the original, Hollywood has decided to go back and try and breathe new life into the series by telling the story of Father Merrin before he encountered the possessed Regan MacNeil in the apt titled Exorcist: The Beginning.
Going backwards in time is usually easier for filmmakers as they don't have to deal with leftover character explanations or story plots that still needed resolve. But this was the least of the films production problems.
First were the revolving door of directors attached to the project including John Frankenheimer who stepped down from the production eerily just before his death. Then Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) came on board and shot an entire film. Studio executives were however unimpressed with the lack of scares and gore and greenlit the film to be re-made again under the helm of Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger). Harlin re-shot the entire film incorporating only a few scenes from the original Schrader version.
The next obstacle was with the availability of the actors for a second full shooting schedule. When Gabriel Mann was unable to reprise his role due to a scheduling conflict, another actor, namely James Darcy from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was brought on board to replace him. Other actors and actresses and additional story lines were added to help shape Harlin's new vision and voila, two versions of a film to make the perfect 2-sided DVD (Like that will ever happen!).
Whether Schrader's version will ever see the light of day is unknown and that is too bad, for in the interim, we are left with a shell of a film that is so misguided and uninteresting, it made Scary Movie look like an Oscar contender. For those of you who caution to comment that no film could ever live up to the original, I argue that this movie stands on its own to being the worst of in the series and maybe even one of the worst films of 2004.
Exorcist: The Beginning centers on the Father Merrin character. Here, he is not far removed from the brutality he witnessed during World War II and his faith has severely waned. While aimlessly drifting through Egypt, Merrin is contracted to help in the excavation of a church that has been uncovered as part of an archaeological dig in Kenya. As their desecration begins, an evil is unleashed unto the land with unspeakable force. How much force you ask? Well, enough force to cause the MPAA of slapping a NC-17 rating on the film unless specific cuts were made. As Merrin continues his research strange things begin to happen to the village. Tribesmen fall into uncontrollable seizures, hyenas begin lurking amongst the workers and after a young boy is torn apart, his younger brother seems to be in a state reminiscent of Regan MacNeil. While the everyone from the Vatican to the British Army tries to interfere with the progress or the information being released as part of the dig, Merrin and the local doctor (Izabella Scorpuco) defy the warning signs of evil as they try to put the pieces of the churches puzzle together.
For a movie that is suppose to scare the pants off us, I didn't even feel a tug at my zipper. I was actually surprised at the lack of scares and how the film tried to resort to the usual tricks to try and induce jumps. Clocks that stop ticking, crosses that turn upside down when you're not looking and doors that open and close on their own have all been done before and wouldn't scare even my young nephew despite the fact that with each attempt they blast a sound bit so loud that it's obvious that they felt they needed the help. Also crippling the films credibility were the below average special effects. The hyenas were so CGI as to be distracting and the possessed individual in the final chapter comes after Father Merrin like something out of the Evil Dead series. In maybe the most ridiculous scene in the film, dead butterflies stuck to a hobby board begin fluttering. Scary indeed.
Maybe the filmmakers should have taken a look at the history of church related mysteries in the past five years. The Order and Stigmata proved that people are no longer interested in seeing religiously overtoned thrillers. Maybe the real horrors of war and its atrocities being broadcast over our breakfast tables have us more grounded in present day repugnance.
It would not be fair to bark at the acting in Exorcist: The Beginning simply because Stellan Skarsgård and company have so little to work with, they don't seem to be interested in their roles and let's face it it's hard to take the bull by the horns when the bull is a donkey.
For all my bitching and complaining, I will give this stinker a ½ star. I did like the opening that had a wide angled shot that takes place after a war leaving thousands dead or dying on the battleground, and I will admit to not seeing the twist at the end of the film even if it was for lack of interest. But ½ star or no stars, my hopes is that people read this review and spare themselves the wallet ravaging to give this dog the box office it deserves.
I was skeptical at first due to the nasty problems that plagued the film (namely the original version was shot by Paul Schrader who was later tossed out by Warner and replaced by Renny Harlin, who dumped most of Schrader's version and re-shot a different script} and just the fact that it had hard shoes to film. But when I saw it in the theater I was pleasantly surprised to see a film with some excellent performances (Skaarsgard in particular) and several decent "boo" scenes and an overall satisfactory atmosphere and very strong sound effects track. A few minor quibbles aside, mostly due to CGI believability that don't detract too much from this decent scary movie.