Exorcist The Beginning
Reviewed by Mark Kermode
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
On an ancient battleground, a lone survivor finds an amulet of the demon Pazuzu and men crucified upon upturned crosses.
Cairo , 1949. Disillusioned priest turned lay-archaeologist Lankester Merrin ( Stellan Skarsgård) is recruited to inspect the excavation of a buried Byzantine church in the Turkana region of British East Africa. Inside the church, Merrin discovers an upturned crucifix, and learns that his predecessor, Bession, has been sent, deranged, to Nairobi. An acquaintance with concentration camp survivor Dr Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) reminds Merrin of a Nazi massacre in Holland in which he was forced to choose ten victims for execution. Hyenas attack and kill the brother of young African boy Joseph who has befriended Merrin at the dig.
In Nairobi, Merrin visits Bession who cuts his own throat; Father Gionetti (David Bradley) says he has been touched by evil. As a stillborn Turkana baby is delivered, Merrin discovers a pagan temple beneath the church. The Turkana chief accuses the archaeologists of awakening a curse, and the British army are called to prevent an uprising. Father Francis confesses to Merrin that the church had been built on the site of an ancient massacre and, according to legend, marks the spot where Lucifer fell to Earth. The Turkanas attempt a ritual sacrifice of Joseph, who is exhibiting signs of possession, and who is saved by supernatural intervention. Finding dig assistant Jefferies (Alan Ford) disembowelled, British army officer Major Granville (Julian Wadham) shoots a tribal leader and commits suicide. A battle ensues in which the soldiers and the Turkanas turn upon themselves. Father Francis (James D'Arcy) takes Joseph to the church to exorcise him. Merrin discovers that Dr Novack was Bession's wife, concludes that she is possessed, and confronts her in the church where she has killed Father Francis. A supernatural battle climaxes in Sarah's exorcism and death. Later, Merrin attends the Vatican wearing a dog-collar, having regained his faith.
As recurrent nightmares go, the production story of this imbecilic, ill-advised Exorcist cash-in is hellish indeed. Smelling a profit in the wake of a successful re-release of The Exorcist, franchise-holders Morgan Creek commissioned numerous drafts of a dopey script addressing Father Merrin's first encounter with the demon Pazuzu in Africa, an episode touched upon in William Peter Blatty's source novel which had already been plundered in the dismal 1977 sequel Exorcist II The Heretic.
From the outset the omens were bad. First, scheduled director John Frankenheimer fell terminally ill, delaying production and causing leading man Liam Neeson to drop out. Next, independent spirit Paul Schrader was signed on to direct a movie, but his version dismayed executives at Morgan Creek who deemed it too low on shocks to be salvageable. Thus, having started again with a new script, new cast and new director, Exorcist The Beginning finally reaches our screens under the helmsmanship of action-hack Renny Harlin looking even more awful than this farcical backstory would suggest.
Harlin's hamfisted horror-show offers an hour and a half of tooth-grinding boredom followed by 20 minutes of all-singing, all-dancing, knees-up stupidity involving supernatural wrestling, CGI spiderwalking and the kind of drop-your-popcorn demonic dialogue ("Don't you want to stick your rotten cock up my juicy ass?") not heard since Showgirls. If only the Exorcist-spoof Repossessed (1990) had been half as funny.
According to Harlin, he approached Exorcist The Beginning with the intention of mirroring the tone of William Friedkin's original so that "if you watch this film and then watch The Exorcist, the original naturally follows, as if it were a sequel". This is, of course, nonsense. The only stylistic debt that this debacle owes to its predecessor is in the numerous clumsy 'quotes' (verbal and visual) which litter the screen: from the hammering of market metal-workers and the drooling of asylum inmates which mimic early shots from Friedkin's original through the cheesy facial appliances which fail to replicate the organic horror of Dick Smith's possession make-up to the final shot in which Stellan Skarsgård dons hat and bag to mimic the iconic image of Father Merrin arriving on Prospect Street.
Yet despite demonstrating a trainspotter's awareness of the original (which was noted for its almost documentary tone), Harlin's prequel plays like Cutthroat Island Goes to Hell, all zany camera angles, crash-bang computer graphics, and bloodthirsty prowling hyenas. The flashbacks to the Nazi massacre that haunts Merrin resemble nothing more than a glossy pop-promo version of Schindler's List, while the excavation scenes appear to aspire to the romping fun of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Yet the overall effect is one of thudding tedium, an atmosphere achieved largely by a staggeringly incoherent script (Alexi Hawley rewriting Caleb Carr rewriting William Wisher) which introduces and kills off characters whose entire raison d'être remains a mystery, and makes William Goodhart's work on the demented Exorcist II The Heretic seem a model of structural sobriety.
Amid the rubble of this catastrophe, Skarsgård cuts a genuinely miserable figure, his weighty presence and tortured expression suggesting an entirely different movie. Indeed, as the star of Schrader's allegedly low-key version, Skarsgård has lived through this role already, in what can only have been more rewarding circumstances. Whatever the flaws of Schrader's version (which Morgan Creek have now agreed to release on DVD, presumably for financial reasons) the idea that its producers thought it was worse than this deranged bilge is almost beyond comprehension. This, however, is business as usual for the company that butchered Blatty's own low-key Exorcist sequel back in the early 1990s, demanding that he retool his icy psychological chiller Legion into the compromised effects shocker Exorcist III. To date, Blatty's director's cut of Legion remains infuriatingly unseen. As for Exorcist The Beginning, let us hope that as Schrader's vision of Lucifer rises, Harlin's damnable efforts are confined to the deepest pits of Hell.
- James G. Robinson
- Renny Harlin
- Alexi Hawley
- William Wisher
- Caleb Carr
- Director of Photography
- Vittorio Storaro
- Edited by
- Mark Goldblatt
- Todd E. Miller
- Production Designer
- Stefano Ortolani
- Trevor Rabin