Congratulations, Renny Harlin. You've successfully exorcised all the horror out of The Exorcist.
Exorcist: The Beginning, a prequel to William Friedkin's 1973 masterpiece of horror both psychological and physical, fills in the backstory - as if that were really necessary! - of Father Merrin and how he first encountered the demon Pazuzu. The first film, you'll recall, opens in East Africa with Merrin (Max von Sydow) at an archaeological dig, searching for something mysterious and nefarious. The Beginning lets us know why he was there and how he became so good at exorcisms in the first place.
Turns out, it's all because some collector wanted a trinket for his trophy case. Who knew?
Merrin, now played by Stellan Starsgard, was once a lapsed priest, who turned in his collar after being forced to not only watch, but participate in, some especially heinous atrocities during World War II. Should have known the Nazis had something to do with all this.
(In fact, the Nazi connection is one of the few intriguing ideas contained in Alexi Hawley's screenplay; developed more fully, it could have made for a far more exciting film, not to mention thought-provoking. No wonder the idea dies aborning.)
And so Merrin decides to do some treasure hunting, heading for East Africa and a remote village where an ancient church, long buried under the shifting sands, is being unearthed by the British Army. Under the watchful eye of Father Francis (James D'Arcy), a non-lapsed priest who's something of a Vatican watchdog, Merrin starts poking around. Mostly what he finds are some very suspicious, distrusting natives, as well as a comely lady doctor, Sarah (Polish actress Izabella Scorupco), for whom he develops something of an attachment.
(There's a revelation: The first Exorcist didn't even have a love story! What an inspiration, putting one here!)
There's evil, however, here in Kenya. The natives don't like having the British around, they don't like having this church dug up (maybe they know the mysterious circumstances under which it was buried), and they especially don't like it when nasty, evil things start happening to some of them, especially a young boy named Joseph (Remy Sweeney), whose bed starts shaking violently.
And oh my, does nastiness ensue!
Exorcist: The Beginning doesn't display one scintilla of the expert craftsmanship that made the 1973 film so memorable. Instead of chilling, this movie is gruesome. Instead of provoking thought, this movie provokes titters. Instead of using well-placed frights to keep audiences on their toes, this one bludgeons them repeatedly with bloody images and sadistic violence (we repeatedly get to watch the Nazis put a bullet through the head of a young girl). Instead of a demon that used language like a scalpel, inflicting damage to the soul as well as the sensibilities, this one has it spewing forth invective after invective, as though its vocabulary was learned solely from George Carlin's Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.
One thing this movie certainly does is whet one's appetite for an earlier version of this same film, written and directed by Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) but shelved. It would have been interesting to see how Schrader's strict Calvinist upbringing and familiarity with Christian theology (he also wrote the screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ) would have been reflected in his work. Producers reportedly felt the Schrader version wasn't scary enough (like this one is!) and decided to start from scratch. Word has it both versions may be released eventually on DVD.
Director Harlin (Cutthroat Island, Deep Blue Sea) pushes everything along at ramming speed, substituting relentless gore and mass-produced mayhem for cerebral horror and honest chills, ending it all with a prolonged chase that looks like a blueprint for a haunted-house ride at Disneyland. Let's hope this is one exorcism that rids us of the beast forever.
Exorcist: The Beginning
Starring Stellan Starsgard, Izabella Scorupco
Directed by Renny Harlin
Rated R (strong violence and gore, disturbing images and rituals, and for language including some sexual dialogue)
Released by Warner Bros.
Time 113 minutes
SUN SCORE * (ONE STAR)