Renny Harlin, 2004
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco, James D’Arcy
Before I actually get to reviewing Exorcist: The Beginning, some back story is necessary. Studio Morgan Creek inexplicably decided they needed a new Exorcist film in the early ‘00s and they wanted it to be a prequel to the original Exorcist, examining Father Merrin’s initial encounter with the demon Pazuzu. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was hired to direct, but withdrew because of health issues and passed away. Next up was Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, director of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, American Gigolo), who completed Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist and was then fired by the studio, because they decided the film would tank. It was more of a psychological thriller and they wanted an outright horror film.
Then they hired director Renny Harlin, known for his action films like The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea, to make a mostly new film. Novelist/historian Caleb Carr’s script was re-written by Alexi Hawley (The Following, Castle) to involve more straightforward horror. The original female character from Dominion was completely replaced. Scenes were reshot and allegedly Harlin’s film doesn’t contain any of Schrader’s footage, just a similar script and most of the same actors.
Father Lankester Merrin has abandoned his religious faith and the priesthood after horrible events during WWII. He travels to Africa as an archaeologist and is invited to work on a buried, but partially excavated Byzantine church in an isolated region of Kenya. A collector wants Merrin to find a small statue of a demon and he also must help protect the church from desecration by the British military, who are in charge of the dig. Merrin meets Sarah, the village’s doctor, who is recovering from her experiences in a concentration camp.
Locals believe the dig is cursed, due to a number of workers dying or disappearing, as well as the previous archaeologist’s sudden insanity. Ignoring this, Merrin works his way into the church, which is in pristine condition, but is oddly sacrilegious. There is a fresco of Satan, an upside-down crucifix, statues of angels pointing their weapons downward, and other strange things. Merrin goes to visit the former archaeologist, but the man cuts a swastika in his chest and kills himself before Merrin can get any answers. Back at the camp things go from bad to worse. A child is killed by hyenas, the village breaks out in near hysteria, and Merrin comes to believe that the strange church is to blame and an evil entity may live within it.
While this is loosely an Exorcist sequel, the script ignores much of what is introduced in Exorcist II. Father Merrin does perform an exorcism in Africa, but there is no boy named Kokuma and the child at the center of Exorcist: The Beginning is not actually the person who is possessed. The film also commits the sin of hovering between a human drama about survival after the events of WWII, spiritual doubt, guilt, racism, and political issues, and a gory horror film. Multiple children are slaughtered, including one ripped apart by hyenas, the set is pretty bloody, and there are a lot of unsuccessful jump scares.
The first act does have promise, but things descend into both predictability and ridiculousness fairly quickly. The film is also overly long at nearly two hours. Aside from the terrible script, which was clearly re-written at the last minute, the film flounders between two main issues. The first is that it tries to retread the same ground as The Exorcist, but with no suspense, no build up, absolutely no subtlety, and few likable characters. The second issue is that the very lousy effects are about on par with Exorcist II and include numerous shots of awful CGI. CGI sand, demons, and bats culminate in a child being torn apart by the worst CGI hyenas imaginable.
The gore and horror elements are mostly tired and derivative. For example, there is an interesting scene where Sarah is about to get raped and another where she and Merrin kiss. While both could have led somewhere compelling, they fizzle out quickly and are interrupted by predictable horror/possession tropes. In general, the violence and evil is motiveless and scares are set up, but fail because they don’t lead anywhere.
Stellan Skarsgård is wonderful, as always, but simply can’t save a lousy script. He’s believable as a young Father Merrin and seems far more rugged than the frail, nearly broken Merrin of The Exorcist. What I found so frustrating with the script is that it introduces a number of elements that go nowhere. Merrin has lost faith because of some terrible experiences in Holland during WWII, but this isn’t fully explored. The same thing happens with Izabella Scorupco’s (GoldenEye) Sarah. She handles her role confidently here and her character has similarly horrifying Holocaust experiences, but outside of an introduction, they are left in the dust.
I really can’t recommend Exorcist: The Beginning. If you have to watch one of ‘00s Exorcist films, Schrader’s Dominion is marginally better. Proceed with caution, either way. I’m reviewing The Exorcist Complete Anthology collection, which includes both the original version of The Exorcist and the director’s cut, The Exorcist II, The Exorcist III, and the two prequels, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.