Father Merrin: Stellan Skarsgard
Sarah: Izabella Scorupco
Father Francis: James D’Arcy
Joseph: Remy Sweeney
Jeffries: Alan Ford
Major Granville: Julian Wadham
Chuma: Andrew French
Semelier: Ben Cross
Warner Bros. Presents a film directed by Renny Harlin. Written by Alexi Hawley. Story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. Running time: 114 min. Rated R (for strong violence and gore, disturbing images and rituals, and for language including some sexual dialogue.)
First a little history about this prequel production. After a surprising box office total on the re-release of the original The Exorcist as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” a few years ago, Warner Bros. decided to bleed some more blood from the stone and announced plans for the very long awaited prequel that would depict the exorcism in which Father Merrin, the Max Von Sydow character in the original, had participated in his younger years. Writer director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus, Affliction), known for his unflinching character studies of deeply flawed heroes, was tapped to both write and direct the project. Left pretty much alone to do what he wanted, he turned in a very modestly budgeted drama that executives at WB felt was too slow to scare modern audiences. After months of battles over re-writes with WB demanding a new ending and several re-shoots, they finally decided to fire Schrader and hire a new director. Who do they hire to replace such an ! art house heavy as Schrader, but the Fin whose first American film was A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and also brought us the gem The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Renny Harlin. Harlin brought the spark of action the WB execs were looking for to the project. He also insisted on re-writing the entire script, and re-shooting the entire film from scratch with an entirely new cast (save Stellan Skarsgard as Merrin) and storyline. They essentially made an entirely new movie even though they already had one in the can. It cost them more than double because Harlin’s budget was larger than Schrader’s original film.
Then the film hit theaters in late summer last year. Warner Bros. showed they still had no confidence in project by not allowing the press advance screening. The press that did bother to review it panned it. They were right. The fans did not go to see it. It would have lost money even if WB had only spent one film’s worth of budget on it. Maybe Schrader’s version is more what people wanted, so WB announces they will include the Schrader version on the DVD release of the Harlin film. But when the DVD is released in February of this year Schrader’s version is not on it. This is because the powers that be at Warner Bros. decided now that Schrader’s version is good enough to release in theaters. It was released in May, in very limited markets, as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. As I felt it was inevitable that I would watch and likely review that film because I am such a fan of The Exorcist, I decided it was only fair of me to see the Harlin version, Exorc! ist: The Beginning, and review it. How I suffer for my obsessions.
The opening shots of the Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea) directed Exorcist: The Beginning involve a holy war fought in Biblical times. There is a shot of one holy man horrified by the carnage, staring at the gore of a few fallen soldiers around him. Then the camera pans back to reveal a sea of corpses disappearing in the horizon farther than the eye of the camera can see. This is a wonderful example of the dangers of digital technology and the extreme overkill used by Harlin in this sad prequel to one of cinema’s great films.
Then the movie takes us to the time just following WWII, where there is no record, not even in the Vatican, of this long ago holy war that obviously took millions of lives; but in Kenya a 5th Century Byzantine church is discovered in an archeological dig. Of course, Christianity hadn’t even reached that area of the world by the 5th Century and apparently this church is what that epic holy war that nobody knows about was fought over, but the movie is aware of both of these facts even though knowledge of the latter makes less sense than the former. It is never explained how a Christian holy war could have commenced over a Byzantine church in an area where Christianity didn’t exist at the time, nor is it even explained why the demon/devil known as Pazuzu would be interested in perverting this land as if it were a Christian one when that form of religion didn’t exist there…. Ow! Damn! This is beginning to hurt my head, trying to make sense of this. I’m s! ure there is some more logic to it than I’m suggesting (there must be), but it isn’t readily enough available to help during a virgin viewing.
Anyway, an artifact collector named Semelier (Ben Cross, Chariots of Fire) approaches the archeologist Lankester Merrin, a former priest whose faith has fallen after seeing the atrocities committed during the European war, to find an object for him before the British do. Semelier suspects, for more mysterious unexplained reasons, the object will be found beneath the church. The object is the small bust of the demon Pazuzu that launched the events depicted in the original Exorcist film.
The Vatican is also interested in the church dig for obvious reasons, considering that so many people seem to know about this 5th Century church of which there is no record. They send their own emissary, Father Francis (James D’Arcy, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), who for some reason acts as if he is Merrin’s assistant even though Merrin no longer has any connection with the Catholic Church. Upon their arrival in the Turkana village that acts as the dig’s home base, the two men learn that strange things have started to occur in the camp since the discovery of the church. Men have been disappearing and soon a small child, Joseph (Remy Sweeney) starts acting disproportionably evil for a child of his age. And it is all the camp’s doctor, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco, Goldeneye), can do to wash up all the blood that starts flowing and still remain sexy enough to interest a former celibate priest who has lost his will for all but digging! in the dirt, like Merrin.
Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves) is easily the best element in the film. He is perfectly cast as the younger Merrin from the Max Von Sydow character of the earlier film. Skarsgard projects the extreme intelligence and gentleness that are essential elements to the priest of both ages. Merrin’s struggle with his faith can be seen in the weariness of Skarsgard’s face, although I fear the only purpose of this struggle is to add biographical detail that the audience couldn’t have guessed about the character in previous incarnations. His falling out with God really has little effect on the story told here, although the director and first time screenwriter Alexi Hawley would like the audience to think it does.
I think the director and screenwriter lost sight of the purpose of this film with the Merrin character, however. This project was supposed to depict Merrin’s first encounter with the demon Pazuzu and the exorcism the nearly broke him and claimed the life of another priest. Well, Father Francis barely factors in to the exorcism at all and once again takes the apprentice role to Merrin, as the younger priest in the original does, rather than Merrin being the less experienced priest in his first exorcism as implied by the original film. Perhaps that is my own assumption of Merrin’s first encounter with Pazuzu from the original film, but what could be the point of showing Merrin in the very same power dynamic in the prequel as in the original film? And the exorcism itself in this new film plays like some extended action sequence, with nary a scare and barely a thrill.
What the filmmakers do with the child who appears to be possessed is nothing short of cinematic exploitation. Trying not to give away too much for those who might still be interested in seeing this movie, I’ll say their use of the kid is a paltry trick that is simply an attempt to re-capitalize on the effect of having a child possessed that worked so well in the original Exorcist. Of course, instead of the disturbing mental chills of seeing the child deformed into a clearly adult monster, with a sadistic adult intellect and post-pubescent voice, this time the child is surrounded by graphic violence, vicious cruelty, blood and gore. I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker tricking me into thinking one thing, when another thing entirely is going down, but there must be some sort of logic as to why the original perception is happening. Even putting the treachery down to the work of the demon makes little sense. Why would the demon frame someone with someone else, when! he can just frame someone by controlling his or her own actions?
Perhaps the greatest failure of this film is the fact that it seems to have no understanding of religion what so ever. The primary reason The Exorcist was such a success was because it took the Catholic religion seriously and used the beliefs of the religion to support the film’s storyline, even propping the validity of the story elements up with the full support of the Catholic church. Most of the priests depicted in the film were actual priests and it was filmed in the actual Georgetown locations in which it takes place. Exorcist: The Beginning uses the Catholic religion merely as a prop for the story. There is a Byzantine church and a couple of priests and the Vatican are very interested in what happens, and that is about the extent to which the religion is used and explored in this plot. There is no reason for the religion to be involved in this story other than so one priest can question his faith while the other is devoted to the “establishment.” The d! emon is just a scary monster here, instead of the creature that is dependent on and manipulative of the beliefs of the Catholic scriptures in the original film.
It is possible this film isn’t quite as bad as I’m making it out to be. It does a good job building its suspense and sets a solid tone based on the opening archeological dig from the original Exorcist. But it is that original film that sets a high bar for this one to reach, and this movie lands painfully short of that one’s greatness. Yes, perhaps if this movie had nothing to do with the original Exorcist, I would have liked it more; but I still wouldn’t have liked it.