Exorcist - The Beginning
After a long wait and much speculation, the fourth Exorcist film is finally here. Originally directed by Paul Schrader and penned by master-thriller scribe Caleb Carr, the film was shelved because it was deemed too slow; more psychological thriller than horror. Action-film director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) was brought in to give the film a spring-cleaning, re-shooting almost the entire thing with a new cast.
This is a tough franchise to continue, as none of the previous sequels have ever lived up to the phenomenon of the first movie. The campy second installment actually made audiences laugh out loud, and the third film, adapted from William Blatty’s “Legion”, made few waves in 1990. The producers instead opted to go back to before the events of the first film for this fourth installment.
Making a prequel is always a risky venture because adding new layers to established characters and plots could ultimately make their exploits less believable. Not to worry, as the writers have done a good job giving us a convincing, younger Father Merrin. Questions from the first movie are nicely answered as well, and Stellen Skarsgard fills Max Von Sydow’s shoes admirably, giving an intense and sympathetic performance.
The movie opens in splendidly ominous fashion; we’re filled with a sinister dread for the first half of the film as Skarsgard - an actor with truly undiscovered depths – portrays Merrin as an archeologist arriving in East Africa to investigate the discovery of a buried 1500-year-old church. The Vatican has no record of a church being built that early in history, and sends a missionary along to the dig site located near a plague-stricken native village. Merrin meets Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a doctor stationed at the site and the two share an instant bond. Both are tortured by recent memories of World War II; Merrin has since lost his faith, Sarah a husband when she returned home from a concentration camp.
Things are not well in this little village, however. Bouts of madness and disease have plagued it for over fifty years. The natives are all afraid of the evil buried under the sand and there’s even whisperings that the church is buried at the spot where Lucifer fell from heaven. The film draws a lot from The Omen in tone and religious juxtaposition, giving us some wickedly perverse imagery to ponder.
Unfortunately, the film begins to fall flat after the first hour, as apparently the producers opted to remove the emotional core of the first film and have instead applied a very formulaic psycho-killer horror plot, complete with a twist ending. Character development takes a back seat to the madness and death that descend upon the camp. Worse, the film degenerates into a pale rehash of the first movie as Merrin confronts the demon Pazuzu for the first time at the climax of the movie.
The new film is reasonably scary, but in a predictable horror movie type of way…relying mostly on shock tactics. It’s also exceptionally gory; there are an excess of grisly, disturbing scenes and large amounts of blood. At times the story seems thin, barely a vessel to take us from one gruesome scene to the next. One moment we have a boy being torn to pieces by wild hyenas, and scarcely a few scenes later a man is slicing his own throat with a large piece of glass.
To his credit, Renny Harlin has done a masterful job with the cinematography on the film. African outdoor locations are stark and sweltering, with interiors that are remarkably shadowy and threatening. Harlin effortlessly builds suspense as he leads his characters around in full frame, showing us their fear up close as they enter unseen locations. The visceral sounds and images build a wonderfully menacing environment and the film manages to keep the tension high right up to the climax.
If you take away the expectations built up by the first movie, Exorcist – The Beginning is respectable, spooky horror flick that stands out among the sequels. Let’s hope The Beginning is also the end of this franchise; it’s time for Hollywood to give The Exorcist a rest.