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Exorcist: The Beginning

Exorcist: The Beginning
cast: Stellan Skarsgåard, James D'Arcy, Izabella Scorupco, Alan Ford, and Julian Wadham

director: Renny Harlin

109 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
With its original version - directed by Paul Schrader - shelved because the studio deemed it wasn't scary enough, this hastily prepared 'remake' of the unreleased film is helmed by Renny Harlin, best known for actioners like Bruce Willis' Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), Cliffhanger and Driven (both with Stallone), superior thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and under-appreciated pirate adventure CutThroat Island (both starring Geena Davis). He might seem like an odd choice to direct a franchised horror picture, but we should remember that Harlin was responsible for the fourth Nightmare On Elm Street film (one of that series' better sequels, in my view), and he first caught the attention of many genre fans with atmospheric shocker, Prison (an early vehicle for Viggo Mortensen, before his current reign as Tolkien's noblest king) in 1988.

While it's really not half as dreadful as some of the notable critics have claimed - "imbecilic, ill-advised... farcical... thudding tedium... deranged bilge" (according to Mark Kermode, writing in Sight And Sound, December 2004) - Harlin's work here does leave much to be desired. But what's good about it, then? Well, as the doubting Merrin, Stellan Skarsgåard is pretty convincing, and fans of the classic Exorcist (1973) - praised as one of the most frightening horror dramas ever made - and its sequels are likely to accept his performance in the title role as being astutely written to predate that of the acting masterclass by Max von Sydow.

Another high scorer on Exorcist: The Beginning is the female lead played by the lovely Izabella Scorupco. She's outstanding as Sarah Novak, a survivor from the Nazi concentration camps, now working as a doctor at the British Army camp near an archaeological dig, in East Africa. Merrin investigates the site of a buried Christian church and discovers it was built upon the ruins of a pagan temple. The local tribal group are unnerved by Merrin's scientific interest in the building, and quake in fear of a 'curse' on the supposedly 'holy' place. The curse is soon blamed for hyenas attacking a young child, and later seems to cause a stillbirth. Although the second half of the film, and its hectic climax in particular, are clumsily paced and saturated with ridiculous CGI effects work, earlier scenes offer an uncanny sense of the approaching and unavoidable doom threatening the world, despite the setting of this tale in the postwar era. And so, when the respective pasts of Merrin and Novack are revealed, Harlin's direction is so measured that it's as if he's striving to assure us (and them) that, even after the recent fall of Nazism, worse evils are yet to come.

Of course, fans of the original Exorcist know that Merrin has to regain his lost faith before the close of this prequel, so we might expect the ending to be neatly tied up. However, that element of predictability, and the plain fact that this film lacks sufficient psychological impact, and fails to live up to the promise of its early brooding scenes of eerie menace in the desert, is hardly, I think, reason to condemn Renny Harlin's version with such a grave and perhaps inconsiderate review as Kermode's. Skarsgåard's contemplative dramatic ability sells us a few remarkable moments of disquiet, and his brief confrontations with the evil force (Lucifer himself?) that lurks just beneath the surface of everyday ineptitude, superstitious nonsense, and military hostility, are suitably compelling. It's sad that the ending is botched, and that numerous rewrites appear to have stripped away layers of character and subplots (though, thankfully, the Merrin and Novack romance is a non-starter!), but Exorcist: The Beginning is worth a look, if you want to see an above-average genre chiller with first class production values, instead of another one of the far cheaper, tackier, shoddier and indifferently disposable horror flicks out there, clogging up the shelves in today's DVD and video stores. Hopefully, the (reportedly superior) Schrader version of this project will be available soon on DVD and so we can look forward to an opportunity to compare that to this, unfortunately insubstantial, effort.

DVD extras: a blandly descriptive commentary by director Harlin, a bog-standard behind-the-scenes featurette, and the original theatrical trailer.

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