William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 horror film about a young girl possessed by a demon and saved by an elderly priest and his assistant has scared and entertained millions for over 30 years. Now, Finnish helmer Renny Harlin takes on the task of telling the story of the beginnings of the vaunted Father Merrin in “Exorcist: The Beginning.”
This prequel to Friedkin’s masterpiece has controversy written all over it. Director Paul Schrader was originally hired by Morgan Creek Productions for “The Beginning” and, $35 million later, delivered the company a completed picture. He was fired and his film shelved because he gave them "footage without any of the bloody violence the backers had wanted.” Renny Harlin, with $50 million more in hand, agreed to give the backroom boys what they wanted. And, less.
Stellan Skarsgard reprises the famous Max Von Sydow character, Father Lankester Merrin, in a story about lost faith and the redemption of belief. Hard drinking Merrin had cast aside his cleric’s collar following a tragic incident during World War Two. Following the murder of a German soldier by partisans, the Nazi officer in charge of the town where Merrin pastors orders the priest to select 10 of the town folk for execution. He can select 10 for summary execution or, if not, watch the entire town slaughtered. Merrin makes the choices but the Nazi’s declaration that “God is not here today, priest” causes him to lose his faith in the Almighty.
Jump forward to 1947 and unfrocked Merrin sits, alone, in a bar in Cairo, Egypt, drinking and remembering his tragic past. He is approached by a collector of rare antiquities (Ben Cross) who proposes that Merrin join an excavation in Kenya where a Christian church was found. The curious thing is the church, buried intact, was built centuries before Christians ever came to the remote locale. The ex-priest agrees and makes the journey to the remote Turkana region of Kenya.
When Merrin arrives he is confronted by an irascible, dermatology challenge Brit named Jeffries (Alan Ford) who tells the former priest of the strange happenings that began following the discovery of the church. The native diggers refuse to enter the site because they claim that evil was awakened within. Then, he sees some particularly nasty hyenas skulking around the dig during the day! Not normal behavior for the nocturnal creatures. When the animal pack attacks one of the sons of the local innkeeper, tearing the boy to shreds but leaving his younger brother, Joseph (Remy Sweeney), unscathed, Merrin realizes something unnatural is happening and, maybe, evil is on the loose.
“Exorcist: The Beginning” is an example of the studio getting exactly what they ask for and the final product suffering because of it. Renny Harlin jumps in with both feet as he takes on the task of recreating the earlier days of Father Merrin and showing us what made the man who helped save little Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) soul in the ’73 film. There is a goodly amount of intrigue as the prequel unfolds, showing Merrin as the tormented man forced to make “Sophie’s Choice” decisions of life and death. Skarsgard does a solid job in showing the man’s daily anguish and his ongoing struggle between belief and not.
There are elements and scenes in “The Beginning” that are quite intriguing. The film opens with a close-up of the bloody face of a medieval priest. As the camera pulls away, we see as he sees – the corpse-strewn battlefield where all the combatants lay dead. As the lens opens up on the scene we are assailed with the sight of a forest of crucified dead, their crosses planted head down in a grotesque parody of Christ’s crucifixion. Evil, we know, is on the move.
When the action comes forward to 1947, we meet the troubled Merrin as he heads to Kenya on his archaeological mission for the mysterious Semelier (Cross). He arrives in the remote Turkana town with a younger priest, Father Francis (James D’Arcy), and meets Doctor Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a former concentration camp victim serving the medical needs of the locals. There is a desperate attraction between the ex-priest and the pretty doctor but their relationship soon takes a back seat to the evil doings happening around them. As the malevolence grows and more people die, Merrin knows that his loss of faith is being sorely tested.
There is a good film somewhere under the heavy hand of Renny Harlin and elements of “Exorcist” are nicely done. The film looks terrific, not a surprise when you consider that the great Vittorio Storaro does behind-the-camera duty. Production, too, is well handled Stefano Marie Ortolani, giving an eerie creepiness to many of the scenes. Unfortunately, the horror story ends in very familiar territory as Merrin must battle the demon to save the life of little Joseph. I wish Alexi Hawley’s screenplay finished as well as it started. The special F/X computer animation, frequently used, has a thoroughly artificial, manufactured look – a major distraction.
“Exorcist: The Beginning” isn’t a bad movie, it is just not a very good one. I give it a C+.Laura:
Laura gives "Exorcist: The Beginning" a C.
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