After two sequels, no producer in his right mind could think that The Exorcist franchise had much gas left in the tank. But the massively successful original chapter suggested an untold back story, and so we have - ta-da! - an insipid, un-scary, half-assed, $85 million prequel called Exorcist: The Beginning.
Well, really it's a remake of a prequel. After original director John Frankenheimer abandoned the project just a month before his death, Paul Schrader (Affliction, Auto Focus) signed on to make the movie. But after Schrader completed it, the execs fired him for serving up a subtle, psychological film, not unlike the underrated Exorcist III (easily the second-best of the franchise).
In came director #3, schlock-master Renny Harlin, the man responsible for some of the great bombs of the 20th century, including The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and the notorious Cutthroat Island. We're sad to report that Harlin outdoes himself.
The story itself isn't bad. A young(er) Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) has abandoned the priesthood after the horrors of the Holocaust have taken his faith. Now an archaeologist toiling in Egypt, Merrin is hired to recover an ancient idol from a 1,500 year-old church that's in bafflingly pristine condition under the Kenyan desert.
The laborers fear that the excavated church houses evil forces, and madness descends upon the camp, afflicting tribe members and British army men alike. El Diablo gets into a young boy, and the camp explodes in unrest as Merrin hides behind his shield of skepticism.
For all the dramatic potential of the story, Exorcist: The Beginning drags. Early intrigue gives way to disappointing payoffs, and Harlin seems content settling for cheap startles instead of true scares. You want rattling chills like the original? Sorry, you'll have to settle for loud noises and disturbing yet almost laughable imagery, like rivers of blood, cannibalistic crows, and a maggoty stillborn baby. At times, Exorcist: The Beginning feels reminiscent of a creaky haunted house ride at the county fair, and its abuse of CGI doesn't provide a dollop of the impact that the head-spinning and pea-soup-spewing of the 1973 model did.
The actors provide no relief from the dull gloom. Skarsgård has his work cut out for him as the younger version of Max von Sydow, and not just because he's obviously significantly older than Sydow was in The Exorcist. Skarsgård has had some great character moments in recent years; his soft-spoken, genocidal villainy was the best thing about this summer's King Arthur. But as Merrin, he seems made of oak and rusty nails, even when being swarmed by demonic flies or stalked by Satanic hyenas. In his defense, there's not much he can do with the material from first-time screenwriter Alexi Hawley, but Skarsgård is plain boring from reel to reel.
The misery of this flick isn't surprising given the résumés of Harlin and especially producer James G. Robinson, one of the more prolific churners of crap in Hollywood. We can't do justice to the series of disasters for which Robinson's taken credit over the past 20 years, but we urge you to look him up online and marvel for yourself.
By the end of the feels-way-longer-than-100 minutes, the mystery is no longer what evil lurks below the African dirt, but what movie the studio left on the shelf in order to distribute this gory mess. Rumors abound that the studio will release Schrader's first take of Exorcist: The Beginning on DVD (Editor's Note: Nope, this one's just got Harlin's version, with commentary track and making-of featurette. Schrader's version is here.). Maybe it's not too late for the distributors to do a little switcheroo in the theaters as well.
Presenting the new Exorcist Bug Zapper.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th August 2004
Box Office USA: $41.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $78M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Dominion Productions, Morgan Creek Productions
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 11%
Fresh: 14 Rotten: 115
IMDB: 5.1 / 10
Director: Renny Harlin
Producer: James G. Robinson, Wayne Morris
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin, Izabella Scorupco as Sarah, James D'Arcy as Father Francis, Julian Wadham as Major Granville, Alan Ford as Jefferies, Remy Sweeney as Joseph, Andrew French as Chuma, Antonie Kamerling as Lieutenant Kessel, Ben Cross as Semelier
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