I can’t help being amused by the short-term memories of critics who claim that Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning has killed The Exorcist franchise. Obviously, they don’t remember what happened in 1977, when John Boorman handed Warner Bros. a $14.5 million art film called Exorcist II: The Heretic. Boorman’s movie, tremendously expensive for its time, was so far out of left field that within three days, it had a different ending — and then it suffered 125 further cuts and changes before it would be released in Europe. So if Boorman’s commercial disaster didn’t kill the franchise, this outing isn’t likely to.
Warner Bros. is once again to be congratulated for their sheer pig-headedness in choosing directors — back in ’77, they had cajoled Boorman into making Exorcist II. Then fresh from the box-office catastrophe of Zardoz, Boorman told the studio that he hated the original Exorcist, and that anything he would make would be very different — in fact, it would be a kind of anti-Exorcist. No problem, Warners said, handing Boorman his fee (a cool million), and guaranteeing him total artistic control.
This time out, they originally tapped director Paul Schrader, who is to Calvinist angst what Ingmar Bergman is to Lutheran guilt. What were they thinking? Apart from his execrable remake of Cat People, there’s nothing in Schrader’s gloom-laden, angry filmography connected — even tenuously — to the cinema of the fantastic. And, of course, the studio was once again shocked when their chosen director turned in a movie that wasn’t at all what they wanted.
This made the third time an Exorcist film had put studio bigwigs in a tizzy. Though with Exorcist III, William Peter Blatty was either luckier, more powerful or more tractable, since all he had to do was shoot a new, more horrific ending to get his picture released. And much as I admire Blatty and his film, I don’t really blame the studio for wanting a bigger climax than the one in his source novel, Legion, which must have been awfully flat when put to the screen.
This round, the studio simply shelved the results and started over, tapping a new director entirely. But rather than chance another maker of “personal” films, they signed up Harlin, the poor man’s John McTiernan (Harlin’s photo is, I believe, in the dictionary beneath the word “hack”). And Warners got pretty much what they paid for — which is both the bad and the good news.
What Harlin handed over is a pretty straightforward horror-film prequel detailing Father Lancaster Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) in his first encounter with the demon, Pazuzu. This meeting takes place at a 1949 archaeological dig in Africa, where a seemingly anachronistic Christian church has been discovered. And as backstory to The Exorcist, this works well enough, so long as you don’t factor in the events in Exorcist II (yet even those could be explained as an encounter taking place between this story and The Exorcist, assuming anyone wants to invest that much effort).
But while The Beginning‘s story explains how the 1949 version of Merrin lost his faith, it doesn’t manage to convey any sense at all of Merrin before that event. And it wouldn’t have hurt had someone come up with a more interesting concept for the disillusioned Merrin than the standard-issue, cynical, booze-soaked priest. I suppose that was asking too much if the goal was to cook up a standard-issue horror flick — which, pretty obviously, was the goal.
Despite all the wailing and teeth-gnashing to the contrary, there’s nothing inherently wrong with aspiring to that. And on that score, it’s necessary to give Harlin credit for creating a film that is, at the very least, creepy (though even greater kudos must go here to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro). However, that doesn’t translate into this film being scary — something that seems to equate in Mr. Harlin’s mind with I.V. bottles crashing to the floor (this “shock” effect must occur at least three times in The Beginning).
On the scare level, this is M. Night Shyamalan stuff — things go “boo” at you, but the “boos” have little to do with the material. And in this case, far too many of them are of the venerable “false scare” variety that has dogged the horror genre for as long as there have been horror films. Something startling happens and then turns out to be nothing of any real consequence (in earlier years, a cat was usually responsible).
Blatty himself used this kind of cliche to brilliant advantage in Exorcist III, where he played the audience with a series of false scares, then paused with perfect precision to let viewers again relax. Next he hit them, when it was least expected, with the very real scare — which was also quite grounded in the actual story. That said, Blatty is a master filmmaker, even with only two directorial efforts to his credit.
By contrast, Harlin is, at best, a hired hand with a veneer of professionalism. He’s also something of a mimic in that his film manages to occasionally resemble all three of the very different Exorcist pictures that preceded his own. Mostly, The Beginning resembles a so-so pastiche of the first movie, though it can’t reproduce that film’s impact 30 years later, no matter how many bits and pieces it copies. At other times, Harlin’s movie physically resembles the deliberate, studio-created artificiality of Exorcist II — except that here, the look appears merely grafted on. Harlin’s film also tries to incorporate Blatty’s theological concerns as most clearly expressed in Exorcist III; however, without Blatty’s actual commitment to these ideas, or his wicked wit, this rehash tends to taste like wax fruit.
In the end, The Beginning tries to be three films in one, but winds up lacking coherence or any identity of its own. However, it isn’t horrible when taken as a simple horror flick: It’s bloody and surprisingly brutal, boasting a kind of visceral, grotesque effectiveness. And Harlin can’t be blamed for some of his movie’s shortcomings. The laughably bad CGI hyenas with their halogen-lamp eyeballs are certainly the result of a studio figuring they’d already poured enough money into this sucker, and that these cartoonish carnivores would suffice. They don’t.
Exorcist: The Beginning is a handsome version of a splattery spook show, with some solid performances and a serviceably unsettling premise. Take it on that level — and expect nothing more — and you won’t be disappointed.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke