Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)


(director: Renny Harlin; screenwriters: Alexi Hawley/William Wisher Jr./Caleb Carr/from the story by William Peter Blatty; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editors: Mark Goldblatt/Todd E. Miller; music: Trevor Rabin; cast: Stellan Skarsgård (Father Lankester Merrin), Izabella Scorupco (Sarah), James D’Arcy (Father Francis), Remy Sweeney (Joseph), James Bellamy (James), Julian Wadham (Major Granville), Andrew French (Chuma), Alan Ford (Jeffries), Patrick O’Kane (Bession), Ben Cross (Semelier), Israel Aduramo (Jomo), David Bradley (Father Gionetti), Antonie Kamerling (Lieutenant Kessel), Cecilia Amati (Little Dutch Girl); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: R; producers: James G. Robinson/Guy McElwaine; Warner Bros.; 2004)

“This one is all hokum and not willing to dig deeper than into the familiar demonic bag of horror movie tricks.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This prequel (based upon events occurring before the first film that led to Father Merrin becoming an exorcist, the part made famous by Max von Sydow in the earlier films) is a fourth version of the Exorcist franchise.

Exorcist: The Beginning seems cursed–the first choice for director John Frankenheimer relinquished the job after initially accepting and dies a month later, the second director Paul Schrader was canned after the studio was unsatisfied with his final cut, and the third director Renny Harlin was brought in to re-shoot the film from scratch and make it more openly scary. The result is a silly horror tale that started off promising but lost its energy and never managed to find anything to say about evil that didn’t seem ludicrous. Harlin managed to strip the film clean of its intellect and leave in only the usual cheap special effect scares–which never delivered the thrills and chills promised. The writer of the 1973 novel “The Exorcist”, William Peter Blatty, stated that he was not behind this project. It’s interesting to note that Schrader’s more psychologically driven version is scheduled for later release on DVD.

Ex-priest Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård), now an archeologist, is recruited in Cairo by a fortune hunter of rare antiquities to join a 1949 British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya. He’s to excavate a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church that shouldn’t be (it was erected a thousand years before Christianity came to East Africa) and bring back an ancient relic of the demon Pazuzu before the other archeologists find it. The Oxford educated Merrin lost faith in everything but himself. He is haunted by recurring nightmares from the past where the Nazis murdered innocent members of his Holland community. Father Merrin, as the local parish priest, was forced to choose which of them were to be marked for execution, as the executing Nazi lieutenant kept on saying “There is no God here now.”

At the site Mr. Merrin is accompanied by the smug Father Francis (James D’Arcy), who was sent by the Vatican to look out for their interests. Immediately weird things start happening that are attributed by the camp working natives to an evil spirit. A camp laborer has an unexplained seizure, blood written biblical messages turn up on the walls, a strange medallion keeps appearing where something evil happens that can’t be explained, a Devil induced menstruation occurs to a woman who physically has nothing left to bleed in her womb, computer-generated rabid hyenas come out during daylight and can’t be stopped from ravaging a child, a native baby is born covered in maggots, and British troops and rebellious natives are both driven into a bloodthirsty rage of madness.

Also at the site is a troubled Holocaust-survivor doctor, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a love interest for Merrin. She treats an apparently possessed native Christian boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney), whom the locals want to kill. It all leads to the messy third act, where Merrin must become a believer again to conquer the evil spirit buried in the church–it’s the site where Lucifer fell when he was kicked out of heaven. Merrill will act to save the area from Evil by performing an exorcism on a character imitating how Linda Blair played the possessed Regan MacNeil in William Friedkin’s original. That centerpiece scene was more unintentionally funny than scary.

This ponderous version of the Exorcist wasn’t scary or thought-provoking, and even the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro couldn’t do much with the location shots (though his moody photography is the best thing about the film). It was no better or worse than the other unsuccessful sequels, which is not saying much. The lackluster script is by Alexi Hawley, from a story by William Wisher Jr. that was improved by Caleb Carr. The characters played by D’Arcy and Scorupco never came to life, while Skarsgård never made his character memorable–giving only a workmanlike performance. The film brings up the possibility of a Vatican cover-up but never pursues that avenue of thought. It instead leaves you with the impression that this one is all hokum and not willing to dig deeper than into the familiar demonic bag of horror movie tricks.