Exorcist: The Beginning
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

One of the most intriguing parts of the original Exorcist film came in its prologue. In this scene, an archaeological expedition made a discovery that brought a horrified expression to the face of a Catholic priest. Exorcist: The Beginning takes us to another archaeological dig site, providing an exotic setting for this newest entry in the Warner Bros. horror franchise.

Here, we're taken to East Africa (circa 1949), where an ancient Christian church, long ago buried under mounds of sand, has been discovered. The church stands where no church should be. We're told the Vatican has no record of the church's existence. Therefore, archaeologist Lankester Merrin (Stellen Skarsgard), a former priest, is sent to investigate.

A change of setting can work wonders in enlivening a series that otherwise may have grown stale, but The Exorcist was never meant to be a series. It was a one-shot story (although author William Peter Blatty saw fit to write his own sequel, Legion). So the sequels have generally suffered from a pervading sense of irrelevancy. While the setting for The Beginning is genuinely compelling, the movie is ultimately just as irrelevant as Heretic and Legion.

The motivation for creating another Exorcist film most likely had to do with cash. Warner Bros. has a recognizable franchise here. So to get the franchise off of life support, they've combined demonic possession with archaeological intrigue, The Exorcist Meets Indiana Jones. And they've thrown in a big dose of Zulu to top things off.

Maybe a director such as David Fincher (Se7en) could have pulled off this strange mélange of genres; Fincher knows how to probe into the dark recesses of our brains and uncover our true fears; however, Warner Bros. turned over this project to Renny Harlin … and that should tell you just about everything you need to know. Harlin directed Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island, and other action extravaganzas. He has a smattering of talent when it comes to staging action sequences, but he has no talent whatsoever for the subtleties of filmmaking, such as pacing and atmosphere.

Everything in The Beginning is afflicted with overkill, almost worthy of the operatic excesses in Exorcist II: The Heretic. In the opening sequence, Harlin gives us a flashback to several hundred years ago when a battle between two armies left the battlefield strewn with thousands of bodies, many crucified on upside down crosses. Crows scavenge the dead, cawing incessantly and ripping out eyeballs and other tender body parts. As the camera pulls back, we see more and more bodies … more and more crosses. We're supposed to be horrified, but the pan out is so cliché (with a tiresome use of CGI effects to create the multitude of bodies) that the effect is completely compromised. Harlin wants the scale to surprise us. That's the twist he provides … but CGI can do anything anymore. So by going from close-ups of mangled corpses to a long shot of the entire battlefield Harlin gives us nothing. And so goes the movie that follows.

We get demonic hyenas by way of CGI, and Harlin tries to shock us by showing them rip a boy apart. The scene goes on for far too long because Harlin doesn't know how to show us humanity. He only knows how to show pain and blood. So he lingers over what he knows. As a result, we get many shots of blood and viscera, but we get shortchanged in terms of demonic possession. William Friedkin's original Exorcist film created a genuinely horrifying vision by focusing on the deterioration of the body and the mind; however, in Exorcist: The Beginning, the screenplay tries to fool us by dangling a red herring in front of our noses and then later surprising us with the identity of the possessed individual. This strategy is maddening because it forgoes the horror inherent in the possession scenario in favor of a simple mystery movie plot twist.

Previously, Exorcist II: The Heretic was widely considered the worst film in this series. Now The Beginning should give it competition.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Warner Bros.
Movie Web site: Exorcist: The Beginning



Photos: © 2004 Morgan Creek. All rights reserved.