Exorcist: The Beginning
September 22, 2005
The road to Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) seeing the light of day has been a rocky one to say the least. Director Paul Schrader was originally hired to helm the project but when the head of the studio didn’t like the filmmaker had done he was fired and Renny Harlin was brought in to make the movie from scratch with very few of the original cast and crew left over from the previous version. It remains to be seen what Schrader’s version was like but judging from his past work, it probably put an emphasis on psychological horror while Harlan’s film relies on explicit gore and standard scare tactics.
The year is 1949 and the Vatican recruits a British archaeologist (Cross) and Father Merrin (Skarsgard), who has lost his faith, to recover an ancient artifact from a recently unearthed Christian Byzantine church in East Africa. Once he arrives at the dig, Merrin meets cliché characters like the grizzled old drunk (Ford) and the beautiful, brainy doctor (Scorupco). Eventually, he enters the church and finds a large crucifix hanging upside down. Strange things start to happen at the surrounding dig. A man suffers inexplicably from a seizure and a boy is torn to shreds by a pack of hyenas while another boy close by is untouched. It quickly becomes apparent that Satan resides in the church and his evil is spreading like a disease, infecting everyone. The longer Merrin stays the more he finds out about this place and the vast cover-up perpetrated by the Vatican.
The first third of the film is spent establishing the characters and the story and yet it forgets to build up any kind of dramatic tension. A staple of the horror genre is the building of tension early on via editing. Instead, Harlan opts for meat and potatoes filmmaking. The pedestrian music in these early scenes is not scary and does not create any tension like it should. The problem is that the writer and the director aren’t making any decisions to create tension and these early scenes epitomize what’s wrong with Hollywood studio horror movies—they play it too safe. We could be watching an episode of that syndicated show, The Lost World but with a better budget.
Somewhere around the halfway mark it’s almost as if Harlin remembered that he was making a horror film and steps things up a notch. He picks ups the pace of the film and creepy things start to happen. By the film’s conclusion—the final showdown between Merrin and Satan—the movie has almost redeemed itself.
Like many of Harlin’s movies, Exorcist: The Beginning is all sound and fury with very little else. He is a journeyman director who is only as good as the scripts he is given, unable to transcend or transform the material when needed. In this case, however, one has to sympathize with Harlin somewhat. Not only did he face the daunting task of making a prequel to one of the most famous horror films of all time but also make it amidst the controversy of Schrader being ousted from the project. While not quite the cinematic train wreck that some critics have claimed, Exorcist: The Beginning is still a flawed film that does have its moments.
There is an audio commentary by director Renny Harlin. He delivers a refreshingly humble track and talks about working with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. He speaks respectfully of the original Exorcist film and the challenge of living up to its legacy.
Also included are cast and crew biographies and a theatrical trailer.
Finally, there is a “Behind the Scenes” featurette with the cast talking about their characters with lots of clips from the movie. Predictably, it does not address the controversy and basically acts as an extended trailer.