Leave it to the director of Deep Blue Sea to make a movie that satisfies Judge Patrick Naugle.
Our review of The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology, published November 6th, 2006, is also available.
A new chapter of evil.
Have you noticed nearly every studio is getting on the horror remake/sequel bandwagon? It seems like everything made prior to 1989 is being remade (The Fog, Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or followed-up with a sequel. In just the last few years we've seen Alien vs. Predator, Halloween: Resurrection, Freddy vs. Jason, and Seed of Chucky, just to name a few. In 2004, Warner decided to make yet another follow-up (this time a prequel) to their classic The Exorcist in an attempt to wipe out the memory of the horrifically bad Exorcist II: The Heretic. Exorcist: The Beginning comes to DVD care of Warner Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Taking place years before the events in director William Friedkin's The Exorcist, Exorcist: The Beginning follows a haunted Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård, Good Will Hunting) post-World War II, who has lost his faith after witnessing atrocities by the Nazis in his German parish. While in Cairo, Egypt, Merrin is approached by an antiquities collector who wants him to join an archeological dig in the Turkana region of Kenya. It seems that they've unearthed a Christian Byzantine church from the fifth century, years before Christianity arrived in East Africa. The church is, inexplicably, in almost mint shape; it's as if the church was constructed, then buried after its completion. The collector wants Merrin to find a specific artifact in the church before the British uncover it. When Merrin arrives at the site, he discovers the reason the church was built and buried so quickly: An ancient evil slumbers inside its walls, and once loose it will test Merrin's faith in both himself and The Lord.
I like Renny Harlin. Let's just get that out of the way. Some think he's a B-level director working with A-level budgets; I think he's made some pretty good popcorn movies. Deep Blue Sea, Cliffhanger, and even the lunk-headed Stallone vehicle (pun intended) Driven have all been entertainingly goofy cinematic fare. That being said, putting Renny Harlin in charge of a sequel to a classic like The Exorcist is the equivalent of having House of the Dead director Uwe Boll helm the follow-up to Schindler's List.
A short history of the film: Local legend has it that director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was originally to helm the project, but pulled out a month before his death from a sudden stroke. After Frankenheimer's passing, actor Liam Neeson, originally slated to play the young Father Merrin, pulled himself out of the project. Writer/director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) was then hired on, made his version of Exorcist: The Beginning, only to have it shelved because the studio believed it was too slow and not violent enough for modern tastes. Warner then hired Harlin to re-shoot around 90% of Schrader's original film. When it hit theaters, it made the same impact as a quarter being dropped into an empty dolphin tank at Sea World.
Here's the big question: Is Exorcist: The Beginning as bad as you might think? Well, no, not really. At least, not if you take it on its own terms, which means almost forgetting it's a prequel to one of the scariest movies of all time. In that respect the film isn't half bad. If nothing else, it's eons better than the laughable Exorcist II: The Heretic and the rather dull The Exorcist III: Legion. Not that being better than either of those films was a very hard goal to accomplish.
Harlin has made a movie that doesn't make much sense, but certainly keeps things moving along. Well, keeps things moving along during the last half hour of the film. Up until that point, it's a lot of wandering around the desert encountering strange sounds, possessed animals, and a grumpy drunk who looks like Nick Nolte after a two-week cocaine binge. Once the last third of the film kicks in, we get all kinds of messy gore, a well filmed battle scene, and the final confrontation with one of the Devil's minions.
Stellan Skarsgård shoulders the daunting task of playing Father Merrin, a role originally occupied by a wonderful Max von Sydow in the original Exorcist. Skarsgård ends up being a good choice for the role; he certainly looks like a younger von Sydow and possesses a quiet, effective way of conveying what Merrin is thinking. His love interest, Izabella Scorupco, has little to do but care for him and the little African American child they think may be possessed by the Devil. The rest of the cast is of little consequence, except for James D'arcy as a fellow priest who likes to inform everyone that "this is the spot where Lucifer fell." Had Donald Trump been around, he'd have built a casino around it and charged everyone twenty bucks to see it. (I can see the commercials now: "Come to my new casino, see where Lucifer fell, and get yourself a great steak dinner for only $29.99.")
Apparently Paul Schrader's version of Exorcist: The Beginning wasn't gory enough for studio executives. Harlin has certainly remedied this by adding in decapitated heads, wolves tearing a small child apart, a little girl being shot in the head, mutilated bodies, a stillborn baby covered in maggots, and a grown woman profusely bleeding from her crotch. While I wouldn't call the original Exorcist "family friendly" by any means, it looks like the Walt Disney version by comparison.
By the end of the film, Harlin treads as close to plagiarism as you can without being sued. He rips of the first film by taking Scorupco's character, Sarah, and possessing her in the exact same way as Linda Blair's Regan was possessed, right down to the child-like dress and demonic face make-up. The only difference is that while Regan was confined to lying in her bed while spitting up pea soup, Sarah is able to climb walls and leap around like a fantastically evil version of the amazing Spider-Man.
In closing, I liked Exorcist: The Beginning as pure, forgettable popcorn fodder—it's no great shakes, but at least I wasn't bored. But when it comes to being a prequel to the original Exorcist, Harlin and his team are as far out of their league as a team of football players taking on Stephen Hawking on Celebrity Jeopardy!
Exorcist: The Beginning is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. I give Warner kudos for giving viewers a very fine looking transfer. The fact is, this picture is in excellent shape. The colors and black levels (there are a lot of them) are all solid and well rendered without any major imperfections (dirt, grain, etc.) in the transfer. Edge enhancement and digital artifacting are both noticeably absent. Whatever your thoughts may be about the film, the fact is that this transfer is nearly flawless. Also available is a full frame version of the film, but it's not recommended.
The soundtrack is presented in a very aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and DTS Surround, both in English. Either of these tracks will fit the bill. Both the Dolby and DTS track feature a ton of surround sounds through both the front and rear speakers. In fact, many of the scares are derived from the creepy music and sound effects. All aspects of the mix are free of any excessive hiss or distortion (except when needed by the film). Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Not surprisingly, the supplements for Exorcist: The Beginning are rather slim. Word on the street is that someday Warner is planning on releasing Schrader's original version of the film, either theatrically or on DVD. Until then, all fans get is a commentary track by director Renny Harlin discussing his involvement in the project and the shoot (he was laid up in a cast for most of it since he was hit by a car right after production began); a seven-minute EPK promo featurette that sports very bland interviews with Harlin, Skarsgård, Scorupco, and D'arcy, among others, discussing their roles in making the film; some cast and crew information, and an anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer for the film.
When you look at Exorcist: The Beginning and compare it to the original film, there's no contest. However, I can say this: out of the three sequels, it's the best of the lot. Warner has done a fine job at putting out a decent version of the film on DVD. So, now that we've seen Harlin's version, where's Schrader's?
Anyone got some pea soup? This reviewer's hungry!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track by Director Renny Harlin
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