Exorcist: The Beginning
August 20th, 2004
In ditching the restrained spookiness of Paul Schrader for the straightforward scares of Renny Harlin, “Exorcist: The Beginning” makes a critical error, and once again lets down the franchise with another overheated attempt to jolt audiences instead of creeping them out. This rare upgrade in prequels might give audiences what they expect, but the feeling of dread in this series is long gone, and “Beginning” just makes the original 1973 horror creation look even better.
Two years ago, writer/director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Affliction”) was hired to create a new origin chapter to the long-suffering “Exorcist” franchise. Detailing the years Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard here, Max Von Sydow in the original film) lost his faith, only to find it tested in the deserts of Africa in the form of a buried church and dark history of secrets, Schrader apparently utilized understated imagery and genuine mystery to satisfy his demonic tale. The version Schrader directed was submitted and quickly rejected by producer James G. Robinson for not being scary enough. Instead of reshooting certain scenes to goose the fear factor, Robinson fired Schrader, then hired filmmaker Renny Harlin to craft a similarly plotted, but brand new take on the story of a young Father Merrin.
Renny Harlin’s name is usually muttered in the same disgusted breath as Michael Bay or Paul W.S. Anderson, but I’ve always found Harlin’s game of hackery far more interesting. He’s helmed some truly fantastic genre pictures (“The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Deep Blue Sea,” and “Die Hard 2”), and isn’t completely interested in destroying the art form like Bay or Anderson seem outright determined to do. If Robinson wanted less talk, more scares, Harlin’s “Beginning” should delight the producer. But for an audience raised in genuine awe of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, “The Exorcist,” “Beginning” is yet another slap in the face for this franchise, which seems obsessed with not comprehending what made Friedkin’s film such a gorgeous horror experience: nuance.
For starters, Harlin was given more money than Schrader to provide visuals, so there is an abundance of CG material that does not appear to be properly realized. Harlin gives the picture expansive landscapes of death, spiderwalking demons, and a group of evil hyenas that stalk Merrin around, but the effects buckle under Harlin’s hefty imagination, occasionally killing the mood the Finnish filmmaker is trying to achieve. What Harlin can’t accomplish in front of the camera he hands over to the sound department, who give “Beginning” a rigorous aural workout, underlining every blink, turn, and whisper with a deafening sound effect; the unmistakable mark of a desperate director. Harlin goes to cheap “boo!” scares more often than any film needs, which was never the point of this franchise, but merely what other filmmakers (or producers) have reduced it to. I also wasn’t thrilled with Harlin’s decision to intermittently kill a child for shock effect. Either unable to correctly mold his own ceremony of terror, or under strict orders to give the crowds exactly what they expect, Harlin fails to generate a fever pitch in “Beginning,” while also forgetting to pursue the important religious undertones only more than superficially.
“Beginning” isn’t a total write-off. The climatic meeting of Merrin and his evidence of faith is interesting, gleefully recalling the vile sexuality of the original film, while handing the audience another showdown between the demon and Merrin. But this sequence is sadly and effectively undone by some hammy CGI. I also enjoyed Harlin’s pursuit of a deliciously violent tone to the film, but it belongs somewhere else, and not in an “Exorcist” installment. “Beginning” is a good foundation to explore this critical time in Father Merrin’s life, but Harlin has botched his mission to bring it to screen with consideration. Maybe Schrader’s more subdued take was really the only way to approach this story. Hopefully one day we can all see the difference.
My rating: D+