THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING
** (out of 5)
August 20, 2004
Stellan Skarsgård as FATHER MERRIN
Izabella Scorupco as SARAH
James D’Arcy as FATHER FRANCIS
Remy Sweeney as JOSEPH
Julian Wadham as MAJOR GRANVILLE
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: Renny Harlin
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Let’s start off with an admission. I am a huge fan of “The Exorcist.” It is one of those movies that, although it was steeped in the style and flavor of the 1970s, it is still as scary and powerful today – perhaps even more so. It is truly a unique film, one that you would never want to remake.
The sequels have had less to be desired because, well, they’re sequels to a one-shot deal. “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” was sloppy and silly. The third film, “Legion,” had some interesting things going on and at least had its roots in the mind of William Peter Blatty (who wrote the original “Legion” book and directed the film). But still, it was no “Exorcist.”
When I first heard that “The Exorcist: The Beginning” was in development, I was actually quite excited.
Harlan Ellison once pointed out in a diatribe on the Sci Fi Channel that some films should not be remade or have sequels churned out. They should, instead, focus on what happened before the movie. The film he was talking about was “Forbidden Planet,” which has been targeted for remake on and off throughout the years. Ellison’s suggestion was to make a prequel that told the original story of Morbius and his crew. And this was a great idea.
Similarly, “The Exorcist” was ripe for a prequel. After all, there was always some mystery about Father Merrin’s past. In the original film, they referenced his work in Africa in which he exorcised a young boy, and that exorcism nearly killed him. There’s a real story there, or at least I thought there was.
Then, as this film was set to be released, I saw that Renny Harlin was at the helm. That was my first clue that this film may not be nearly as good as it could be.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Renny Harlin’s movies. While I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch “Driven,” I’ve seen pretty much all of his other films. And I loved them. Even “Cutthroat Island.” I know he makes crap, but he makes good crap. I consider him one of the best hack directors of the age, right after Paul W.S. Anderson and Paul Verhoeven.
As I watched “The Exorcist: The Beginning,” I thought Renny might be able to do it. The beginning of the film is tense and mysterious. It has some good suspense and sets up some neat questions to be answered. Of course, the opening of the film was actually the harbinger of what was to come. Where the original film opened in Iraq during a dig, it was very realistic and almost presented like a documentary. “The Exorcist: The Beginning,” however, opens up on an ancient battleground with thousands of dead bodies, crows circling them and hyenas running through the field.
It was too much. It was too big. It was clear that Renny Harlin could not resist making a “Die Hard 2” sized movie. But once that scene faded, things calmed down, and it looked like we might have a decent mystery and psychological thriller on our hands…
…until about half-way through. It wasn’t long before they decided to start using bad CGI hyenas to maul a child. It wasn’t long before they started using wickedly thin green screen to composite low-grade digital matte paintings of desert skylines. And while masterful directors know that the scariest scenes hinge upon what you don’t show, Renny Harlin doesn’t.
By the time the film was 60 percent through, the story disintegrated into random disturbing images and red herrings so awful that I never really cared I was fooled in the first place. Scenes seemed to be added simply to add gore and blood, like a maggot-infested stillborn baby. Honestly, who wants to see that?
Similarly, the characters had no real strength behind them. The keystone character Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) keeps having flashbacks to occupied Europe during World War II where he witnessed atrocities committed at the hands of the Nazis, causing him to lose his faith. Sure, the Nazis were bad guys, but using them as someone’s backstory is becoming a huge cliche. It just seemed out of place in “The Exorcist: The Beginning.”
Eventually, this led the way to the film having a message about British imperialism and racist attitudes in 1949 Africa. Hmmm, I thought this movie was supposed to be about demonic possession, not a soap box sermon about the questionable historical motivations of the British.
It’s not that they didn’t try to make a good film. They just didn’t try to finish a good film.