The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s novel published in 1971 was on the New York Times best-seller list for 55 weeks. Two years later William Friedkin’s film version, produced and scripted by Blatty, went on to gross $193 million and received 10 Oscar nominations. The film was cleverly marketed as being plagued by what was referred to “The Exorcist Curse", in which mysterious and inexplicable events surrounded the production of the film. And Oh How The World Believed It. According to The New York Times, in a Manhattan cinema “People stood like sheep in the rain, cold and sleet for up to four hours to see the chilling film,” while inside there were reports of nausea, fainting spells and heart attacks. Press releases even talked about ambulances that were parked in front of the theaters waiting for people who would need assistance as a result of watching the film.
The Exorcist became an immediate phenomenom that inevitably triggered several awful imitations. One of these imitations was the Italian film Beyond the Door, a film that blatantly plagiarized The Exorcist so obviously that Warner Bros sued its producers. Four years later Warner Brothers released the official sequel; John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, an embarrassment both critically and financially. In its attempts to do something different Mr. Boorman created a confusing and non-scary sequel that included James Earl Jones dressed as a giant locust. For the next sequel William Peter Blatty took the lead, not only as a writer, but as director. Based on his novel Legion, Blatty returned to the realism and mood of the original without the on your face visceral shock elements. Although more successful critically, the film never approximate the original’s intensity and was a box office disappointment.
So you would think that the so call “Exorcist Curse” would have taken a different meaning with the folks at Warner to leave the franchise alone. Well, surprise, surprise now comes Exorcist: The Beginning. From the beginning (pun intended) this film was plagued by a troubled production, which involved the death of its first director and the dismissal of the second director, Paul Schrader, who’s version was deemed by the producers as insufficiently frightening and shelved. Unlike many folks that had already dismissed this film as a Turkey even before it opened, I was one of those people that really wanted to like it. Well, there are good news and not so good news. The good news is that the Exorcist The Beginning is not as bad as it could have been. The bad news is that what’s there to celebrate is a minor victory and not worth recommending unless you are a true fan of the genre.
The real curse with the Exorcist films is that what made the original so popular was that it’s terrors where derived from a real context in which everyone could relate to and that it had a very simple story that use a claustrophobic, kitchen-sink realism to immersed us into its supernatural events. By attempting to do something different, the Exorcist sequels have completely ignored why people gravitated to the original story in its first place. These sequels substituted the claustrophobic setting of the original (most of the scares occurred in a bedroom) by opening up the movies to exotic locations, more appropriate for travelogues than horror films. They also substituted the simplicity of the story (young girl gets possessed-then exorcised) by complicating their stories with endless subplots and elaborate explanations to justify the new storylines. The folks involved in these sequels gave up on the elements that made The Exorcist such a masterpiece. Exorcist The Beginning is not an exception to this curse.
This wrong approach is quite evident in the opening scene of Exorcist The Beggining. Director Renny Harlin opens with a close-up of the bloody face of a medieval priest, proceeded by a dizzying CGI generated shot of a Dantesque 6th Century battlefield in which upside-down crucifixes and bloody corpses are revealed. The synthetic quality of this sequence, edited MTV style with a pounding score is the stuff for historical epics not horror movies.
The movie introduces, Father Merrin, haunted by memories of a WW II atrocities who has renounced his faith and is working in Cairo as an archaeologist. He is hired to explore a pristine sixth-century Byzantine church that has been unearthed in a village in Kenya. He is asked to secure a relic, a totem of a demon which his employer wants. The church seems to have been buried, intentionally, as if to contain some spiritual force rather than exalt it. As Merrin digs, a mysterious presence seems to set itself upon the entire region. A tribal elder’s wife gives birth to a maggot-infested fetus, hyenas attack children, people start dying, and an escalating standoff between the local British troupes and the natives bears discomforting similarities to Merrin’s Holocaust horrors. There is also a young boy named Joseph that appears to become the focus of the evil.
After the uneven opening scene, the first half of Exorcist: The Beginning is actually creepy, atmospheric, and even disturbing. The film views demonic possession less as a singular occurrence (as in the original Exorcist), than as a conglomerate disease born out of the actions of men that crosses time and space, infecting entire communities as a result. This theme is illustrated in a very powerful sequence shown as a flashback in which a German SS officer rounds up the villagers for an interrogation and sets a machiavelical plan, in which he begins by shooting an innocent little girl in her head. The lieutenant demands that Father Merrin identifies 10 folks who will also be executed. Should he refuse, the lieutenant vows to kill everyone. “God is not here today, priest,” he bellows. Merrin has to assume the role of executioner.
Mr. Harlin's appears to be an uninspired choice for this material. He may not have not brought much cohesion to his Die Harder, and Cliffhanger previously, but at least he brought a sense of manic adrenaline that worked with that genre, but totally inappropriate for a horror film. That said at least he manages to keep his hyperactive directing style under control for most of the first half accomplishing a sense of dread and creepiness that builds to considerable suspense.
Three memorable sequences come to mind; a crosscut sequence of Merrin prying open a tomb while a village woman births a maggot-infested baby; a British officer being attacked by his butterfly collection before blowing his brains out; and a creepy Sanitarium sequence that involves the carving of a swastika.
However, Harlin really doesn’t have the directorial control to actually stay with such ideas and abandons any pretense of subtlety to go for loud effects and bad CGI effects at every possible opportunity. There are bad CGI hyenas, bad CGI breath, possessed children, lesions, bugs, and other things reinforced by Trevor Rabin’s awful bombastic score. Leading to the most ridiculous confrontation between Father Merrin and the foul-mouthed demon.
Stellan Skarsgård brings dignity, gravity and complexity to the role of Father Merrin. James D'Arcy plays the thankless role of Father Francis competently enough until the bad writing of the script sabotages any credibility and Izabella Scorupco is intense and very effective as the local doctor and a concentration-camp survivor until the she is required to go nuts in the film’s climax.
The film was beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart , Last Tango in Paris), employing a dramatic sense of landscape and mood. Stefano Ortolani’s production design is also impressive.
Owing more to Exorcist 2:The Heretic and the countless rip-offs that followed than to the original Exorcist itself, this prequel starts out promisingly and then degrades in its second half into the absurd featuring one of the most ridiculous climaxes ever captured on film. The curse goes on.