Exorcist: The Beginning
Director : Renny Harlin
Screenplay : Alexi Hawley (story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Stellan Skarsgård (Father Lankester Merrin), Izabella Scorupco (Sarah), James D'Arcy (Father Francis), Remy Sweeney (Joseph), Julian Wadham (Major Granville), Andrew French (Chuma), Ralph Brown (Sergeant Major), Ben Cross (Semelier), David Bradley (Father Gionetti), Alan Ford (Jeffries), Antonie Kamerling (Lieutenant Kessel)
Bad as it is—and it is bad—Exorcist: The Beginning may have a silver lining in that it marks an important moment in which a production company’s incessant desire to cater to the bottom line completely blew up in its face, a lesson we can only hope others will take to heart. The blame for major film debacles are often laid at the feet of filmmakers and actors—Michael Cimino’s lavish overproduction on Heaven’s Gate (1980), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s self-indulgence in Last Action Hero (1993), or, closer to home, John Boorman’s silly mythical pretensions in that grand-daddy of all great bad movies, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
But, here we have a production company, Morgan Creek, that was handed a completed film budgeted at $30 million that it deemed unfit for public exhibition, not because it was incompetent, but because it wasn’t graphic and sensational enough. The film’s original director was Paul Schrader, known for writing psychologically introspective films about violently conflicted characters, including Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), themes he has carried over into his own directorial career with such films as Affliction (1997) and Auto Focus (2002). One could see why he would be drawn to directing Exorcist: The Beginning, as it purportedly deals with the early years of Father Lankaster Merrin, the titular exorcist of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, and how he overcame his lapsed faith while first facing down a demon in Africa. While no one except the suits at Morgan Creek have seen Schrader’s version (it is due to be released on DVD, though), one can imagine that it is likely a low-key, psychological thriller that is heavy on emotional conflict and low on pea-soup vomit and spinning heads. Apparently, that didn’t satisfy producer James G. Robinson, not that he should be trusted since he hasn’t produced an even remotely decent film since 1992’s Last of the Mohicans and 1993’s True Romance.
So, the suits at Morgan Creek shelved the film, brought in a new screenwriter, first-timer Alexi Haley, to retool the script, and then handed it off to director Renny Harlin, who proceeded to give them exactly what they apparently wanted: a $54 million sensationalistic hack job that is heavy on gore and cheap shocks and almost completely devoid of any sense of genuine human, social, or religious insight. Morgan Creek, so sure of the American public’s inability to deal with anything complex, has served up a preposterously silly shocker that would be on-par with straight-to-video schlock were it not associated in title with one of the greatest horror films ever made.
The story takes place mostly in Africa in 1949. Stellan Skarsgård plays a young Father Merrin, who has lost his faith after being forced to make a Sophie’s choice by the Nazis in World War II and is now a hard-drinking, cynical archaeologist. He is brought to a dig in Kenya where the occupying British colonialists have stumbled across a perfectly preserved Christian church buried in the ground. The only problem is that the church predates the existence of Christianity in the area by 1,500 years—thus, it shouldn’t even be there.
As it turns out, there’s a reason why the church was buried, namely that it’s harboring an ancient evil that’s just itching to get out. And get out it does, but instead of possessing just one person, it is omnipresent—or at least as omnipresent as Alexi Haley’s jumbled screenplay dictates at any given moment. It appears that the demon possesses some of the African villagers, as well as a pack of badly computer-generated hyenas, as well as a small child, and later a “surprise” character who, if I understand correctly, has been possessed the whole time, but just didn’t act that way until it was convenient for the film’s ludicrous climax.
The sturm und drang of the climax also involves some sort of possession involving an entire African village and an entire regiment of British soldiers who slaughter each other while Merrin tries to exorcise the demon in an ancient temple belowground. Judging by the barely suppressed laughter in the audience, I was not alone in judging this big finale to be hopelessly silly, with the possessed person racing down a long tunnel toward Merrin like a whacked-out cartoon character and then being exorcised in a scene that’s only missing the witchy cackle of “I’m meeeelllllttting!” to send it right over the top and into the stratosphere.
If Morgan Creek was worried that Schrader’s version didn’t have enough viscera, Harlin was sure to include as much as possible, giving us pulsing, oozing sores, a crow picking at a corpse’s eyeball, a disemboweled body, a stillborn baby covered with maggots, dozens of upside-down crucifixions, a character slicing his own neck open with a shard of glass, Nazis executions, and a screaming young boy being torn to pieces by the demonic hyenas. He also supplies plenty of cheap scares, with crashing strings thundering as something leaps from the corner of the frame time and time again.
Harlin, who began his career in Hollywood making graphic horror films like Prison (1988) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) before graduating to big-budget action flicks like Die Hard 2 (1990) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), can sometimes infuse his schlocky material with a sense of guilty fun (his sublime guilty pleasure being the super-shark thriller Deep Blue Sea). Unfortunately, Exorcist: The Beginning is too brutal and somber to be guilty fun, but it’s too derivative and silly to be taken seriously.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Warner Bros.