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Exorcist: The Beginning   C

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Alexi Hawley, William Wisher, Caleb Carr
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco, James D'Arcy, Remy Sweeney, Julian Wadham, Andrew French, Ralph Brown, Ben Cross.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Was the kid really possessed?"
"Probably."
"You gonna tell me by what?"
"Oh, you know. The usual."

--Loomis and Harry D'Amour, Lord of Illusions

If the monkey stinks badly enough, you're never going to make him entirely presentable. So too does Exorcist: The Beginning dash our hopes of delivering anything in the neighborhood of the incomparable original. The cards just weren't right; too much muck has built up for anyone to properly polish it. The project's first director, John Frankenheimer, died in 2002, prompting the departure of lead Liam Neeson. Neeson was replaced by Stellan Skargsård (who reprises Max von Sydow's role as Father Merrin here) and Frankenheimer was replaced by indie-film staple Paul Schrader. Schrader apparently turned in a completed film, which the producer found so unpalatable that he hired purveyor of summer silliness Renny Harlin to completely reshoot it. A mostly-new cast was brought on, the script was presumably juiced up, and the results were finally set for a dog-days release without the benefit of a critics' screening. The turkey shoot, it seemed, was on.

And yet, after all is said and done, the results are actually somewhat competent. Not good to be sure, but hardly the unwatchable black hole of Suck we had been led to anticipate. It moves along well enough, its story is reasonably coherent, and while Harlin is hardly the subtlest of directors, it manages a few precious moments that hauntingly evoke the first film. It's not even the worst Exorcist movie ever made -- that honor belongs to John Boorman's excruciating Part II -- which in and of itself should exceed expectations. How can one complain too loudly, then, about the cheesiness on display? How can one point to the periodic dead patches, the knee-jerk scare tactics, or the CGI hyenas, and say, "Friedkin was better"? All hope of artistry vanished long ago, but in this case, "mediocre" is a palpable victory.

The story concerns Father Merrin's first encounter with the devil -- hinted at in the original film -- some 25 years before that fateful showdown in Georgetown. It's 1949 and Merrin has renounced the priesthood. A horrifying incident in Nazi-occupied Europe has left him bereft of faith, turning to archaeology as a tenuous substitute. We first see him in some Middle Eastern scum-hole, boozing it up like Indiana Jones' low-rent cousin. Then a mysterious benefactor offers him a conundrum: a figurine head (the same one from the original) is believed to lie in an ancient church being excavated in Kenya. The church was there hundreds of years before Christianity came to the region -- and it possibly marks the site where Lucifer first fell from heaven. The man asks Merrin to retrieve the artifact, setting in motion a series of events that will ultimately culminate in Regan MacNeill's bedroom.

Harlin has no qualms about pushing the adrenaline button, and while lip service is paid to the first film's theological underpinnings, this go 'round is more concerned with roller-coaster jolts. At the dig, a young local boy soon shows signs of possession, and while Merrin tries to search for secular answers, the excavation receives the usual spate of Satanic bumps in the night. The original head of the expedition, we learn, went mad. The church itself is defaced, marked by a huge crucifix turned upside down. Those hyenas pop up for a gruesome disembowelment, and dark mutterings about curses and evil spirits pepper the dialogue. It grows repetitive at times, though Harlin often turns to Hitchcockian exploitation to move things along. There's even a love interest, played by Izabella Scorupo, which initially suggests unseemly script doctoring. August is no stranger to such material, and Exorcist: The Beginning never summons the will to distinguish itself from a predictable and very shopworn pack.

But despite the film's overall creakiness, it never entirely succumbs to the trash. Skarsgård is an appealing presence and though we see few manifestations of Merrin's crisis of faith, the actor approaches the material with a gamester's professionalism. The theological notions are downplayed, but they're still present, and give the film a genuine subtext to chew on. Harlin makes some decent comparisons between the otherworldly presence menacing the dig, and more earthly evils like the Holocaust that robbed Merrin of his God or the racism of colonial Kenya. There's plenty of inadvertent hilarity, but also an unexpected twist -- not great so much as well-hidden -- and despite its over-the-top hysterics, the climax still tugs at the memories of its iconic predecessor. Harlin includes a few sly jokes as well (a radio plays "We'll Meet Again" for Merrin at one point), mitigating the generally turgid tone with a smile or two. If the mix is ungainly and standard-issue, it's rarely outright terrible, and its small pleasures are just common enough to justify our attention.

And it may have even more than that to offer. Schrader's unreleased version still exists, and there's been talk of releasing it on DVD. If so, it would represent a strange (and largely unprecedented) cinematic experiment: two directors' feature-length takes on the same project. Granted, it's an inadvertent development, and one suspects that neither version will be immortalized in the pantheon of film classics, but for a mid-August grinder that smacked of a train wreck, it's a welcome bonus. This is not a great film. This isn't even a quality film. But it avoids the wretchedness expected from its troubled history and delivers a reasonable final product with which one could adequately fill a lazy Saturday afternoon. For all the insurmountable hurdles in its path, Exorcist: The Beginning does its job as well as it can and never looks back; a wise policy when the devil is snapping at your toes.

Review published 08.23.2004.

* * *

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