Exorcist: The Beginning Review
By Joe Lozito
Like most classic horror movies, 1973's "The Exorcist" loses some of its bite with time and familiarity. Aside from the famous vomiting scene, most of the scares in the film involved loud noises and screams. Looking back at it now provides more laughs than chills. What made the movie so great was the time it spent on its characters, in particular the two priests battling the evil in Linda Blair's possessed Regan.
"The Exorcist" fell victim to Hollywood's need for a franchise in the worst way, spawning two horrendous sequels: 1977's unwatchable "Exorcist II: The Heretic" and 1990's misguided George C. Scott vehicle "The Exorcist III". For the newest addition "Exorcist: The Beginning", director Renny Harlin and writer William Wisher Jr, go back in time to concentrate on the origins of the elder priest from the original film.
Stellan Skarsgård picks up the reigns of the Father Merrin role, memorably played by fellow Swede Max von Sydow. Mr. Skarsgård swaggers through the film like John Wayne channeling Indiana Jones with a vaguely Eastern European accent. In a rare U.S. lead role, Mr. Skarsgård adds a welcome gravity to the film, biting into Merrin's internal demons. It seems Merrin witnessed some horrors (and they are horrific) during World War II, which caused him to lose his faith and ditch his collar. This is the theological version of those police thrillers where the experienced cop is pulled out of retirement for one last case.
Merrin must venture to Kenya where an archeological dig has uncovered a Catholic church where one shouldn't exist. There, Merrin meets a beautiful doctor played with elegance by Izabella Scorupco as if she were auditioning for a remake of "Casablanca". The script by Mr. Wisher actually takes the time to develop a fairly interesting relationship between Merrin and the doctor, at least until the strange goings-on get in the way. And they are very strange. Since the devil is involved in the film, the writer can get away with pretty much anything. Sadly, however, there's not one real scare in the film - just a lot of gross stuff. I mean, blood, flies, maggots, hyenas, crows picking on things. But no real scares. Though, it's not from lack of loud noises on the soundtrack in appropriate moments.
I'd say this movie is a return to form for Renny Harlin, but I'm not sure that would be a compliment. That biggest disappointment in the film may be the lackluster special effects. For a film featuring killer hyenas, I would think they could have invested in one live one.
Obviously, "Exorcist: The Beginning" is not a great film. But, as a friend of mine noted, it is far better than it has any right to be. If anything, the film suffers most from carrying the "Exorcist" name - it has a far more interesting story buried somewhere in it and, in any case, it's actually much closer to the "Omen" films (another failed series of good v. evil movies). I appreciated that the filmmakers didn't just tell the same story again. They took the chance to try to develop a character, and they did it without pulling any punches. There's some real nasty stuff in here - which is as it should be when dealing with pure evil. Father Merrin loses his faith for a real reason and to get it back he goes through hell. In a movie with this title, I would expect nothing less.