Exorcist: The Beginning


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

"The best view of God is from Hell." The best view of Exorcist: The Beginning is not at all.

It has had a troubled production, to put it mildly. John Frankenheimer took the gig, was prepared to direct, but pulled out due to ill-health. A month later, he was dead . Liam Neeson was cast as Father Merrin, but had a motorcycle accident. Eventually, Paul Schrader (director of the underrated Affliction) jumped on board and the film was shot, edited, scored and mixed. The executive test screenings proved so negative that the entire thing was shelved. The Version You'll Never Get To See, perhaps?

Renny Harlin (Nightmare on Elm Street 4) was called in to fix the problem, which involved hiring a new writer to rejig the story and characters and eventually reshooting the entire movie. The result is an unmitigated disaster.

A relatively schooled film-buff knows what to expect from a Harlin movie - slick, big budget action, with subtlety being the other guy's problem. Even so, his films usually hit their targets, because they're set so low. The highly entertaining, if forgettable, Deep Blue Sea and Sly's mountaineering mini-epic Cliffhanger being the choice cuts.

What puzzles me is that there is nothing in his CV to indicate that he is capable of a complex, dark, psychological study of belief, in a blanket of genuine dread. Having said that, neither did William Friedkin at the time of directing The Exorcist, the canonoical classic of modern horror and Catholic art.

In the prequel to the great Exorcist, subtitled The Beginning, Father Merrin's past is explored, resulting in a climactic confrontation with Pazuzu, the demon who commandeers Regan's soul in the 1973 film. Harlin echoes Friedkin's previous work, through uses of recognisable shots and locales - the hammering of the forge, the re-use of the medallion and the Pazuzu dig being set up for the next movie. An archaeological discovery turns up a buried church, within which a great and ancient evil lurks. Lankester Merrin - an ex-priest-cum-tomb-raider, complete with rumpled hat - is summoned at a price to locate a piece from the cursed spot "where Lucifer fell."

Stellan Skarsgard steals the show, with his professional turn, as Merrin. Indeed, he looks as though he's occsaionally sleepwalking through scenes that he's already shot for Schrader. Izabella Scorupco, as a doctor, is nothing short of a walking plot device, selling empty sex appeal in the same way as in GoldenEye.

The real issue I have with The Beginning is that there is not a single shred of cinematic value in it. A freakshow of a movie, filled with oodles of "lights out" cheap shocks, entirely inappropriate stomach-churning violence - a child is ripped apart by CG hyenas - and helplessly dull when not infernally noisy. Atmosphere is notably absent, given Harlin's requirements to deliver jump-scares as soon as they build.

Vittorio Storaro contributes some lovely, vacuous photography, which feels as though it belongs in another movie, completely inappropriate to this subject matter. It looks polished, even when children - banally milking our sympathies again! - are being shot by Nazis in a clumsy attempt to provide depth to Merrin's past, all presented in a mute coloured, crystal clear sequence of dream sequences, with gorgeous digital snowflakes.

The subplot of his priesthood and faith is abysmally handled, before picking up the tools of the trade on the way to ridding the world of an ancient evil forever. Why does Merrin regain his faith? The movie doesn't care; it just wants to lead us to the spider-walking climax. An unintentionally hilarious exorcism scene, with the demon and Merrin delivering the words, as CG air punches and pummels and deforms the demon.

I keep mentioning the computer graphic imagery. Personally, I don't have an aversion to this, not even bad effects. It's all about suggestion and intent. Minority Report may be the most flawless marriage of digital work to a storyline that I have ever seen, whereas Van Helsing may boast noticably bad effects, although in perfect harmony with the purpose of that film.

Perhaps, I am misinterpreting the tone and ambition of The Beginning by comparing it to Friedkin's classic, but mere geek-show movies depress me. Great horror films show us terrible things, without sexing them up for mass consumption, forcing us to confront them with our hearts and intellect. I can but pray that Schrader's version reveals a story worth telling.

In the meantime, please don't bother with this wretched cash-in. Let the sleeping (CG) hyenas lie.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2004
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Exorcist: The Beginning packshot
Prequel to The Exorcist, in which Father Merrin discovers the demon Pazuzu.
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Director: Renny Harlin

Writer: Alexi Hawley

Starring: Stellan Skarsgard, Izabella Scorupco, Jame D'Arcy, Ralph Brown, Remy Sweeney, Julian Wadham, Andrew French, Ben Cross, David Bradley

Year: 2004

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

The Exorcist (Director's Cut)