Exorcist: The Beginning movie review
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A scene from 'Exorcist: The Beginning'
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100 minutes | Rated: R
WIDE: Friday, August 20, 2004
Directed by Renny Harlin

Starring Stellan Skarsgard, James D'Arcy, Izabella Scorupco, Ben Cross

  ('00) "The Exorcist" (rerelease)
  • Satanic frights & faith-based thrillers
  • Renny Harlin
  • Stellan Skarsgard
  • James D'Arcy
  • Izabella Scorupco

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    Sneaked into theaters, 'Exorcist' prequel isn't as bad as its tumultuous creation might indicate

     by Jeffrey M. Anderson (Combustible Celluloid)

    This poor series has gone through nothing but trouble. According to the author of the original book, William Peter Blatty, "The Exorcist" was plagued by strange occurrences. The sequel, "Exorcist II: The Heretic" suffered the most horrendous opening in history, and was recalled and re-edited with little success. The third film, "Exorcist III," directed by Blatty, went virtually ignored. And now the fourth film has the strangest backstory of all.

    Warner Brothers originally commissioned Paul Schrader to direct the film -- a wise move, considering that Schrader is one of the best and gutsiest filmmakers around. He's not only made blistering dramas like "Blue Collar" and "Affliction," but he's also experienced at horror films like the 1982 "Cat People" remake.

    As the stories go, Schrader finished his film and turned it in, but Warner Brothers complained that it was not scary enough and too intellectual. The studio demanded re-shoots. When Schrader refused, action hack Renny Harlin ("Cutthroat Island," "Driven") was brought in to replace him, starting almost from scratch with a new script and mostly new cast. And this is the version Warner Brothers has decided to release -- even though they didn't like it enough to screen it in advance for the press.

    Schrader's version still exists, and reports indicate that Warner Brothers will release it later this year on a double-disc DVD set alongside Harlin's version. I have my guess as to which one will be better.

    Harlin's version plays not unlike "Exorcist II." It's a huge mess with passages of great beauty, juxtaposed with a few truly scary moments and a bunch of hokum and stupidity.

    Stellan Skarsgard stars as a younger version of Father Merrin, the older exorcist played by Max Von Sydow in the 1973 original. Having survived WWII and seen his share of horrors at the hands of the Nazis, Merrin has given up the cloak and become a hard-drinking archeologist. He's hired to travel to Kenya, where an old church has been discovered, to bring back an artifact reported to be inside.

    When he gets there, he discovers that things are not as they should be. There's a big upside-down cross and the church has been purposely buried. Plus, all kinds of weird things start happening, such as a still-born baby covered with maggots or a previous archeologist gone stark raving mad.

    Photographed by the extraordinary Vittorio Storaro ("Last Tango in Paris," "Apocalypse Now"), the film looks amazing, bathed in sandy golds and shimmering heat. Skarsgard helps with his measured performance of a tormented, brooding, intelligent man. The early passages of quiet detective work and hushed conversations work the best.

    Then the film goes on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, mixing brilliantly scary scenes and utterly brain-dead ones. In one silly episode, Merrin wonders about the origin of a series of graves and begins digging them up -- at night. He also digs a perfect rectangle in the dirt before he strikes the coffin lid.

    Even William Friedkin's original "Exorcist" isn't really as great as everyone imagines it to be. It's a bit quieter and slower than many films today, and it seems more intelligent, but it's really just a more exaggerated version of a standard gore-fest. In that light, "Exorcist: The Beginning" doesn't stray too far from the quality of the previous three films. In other words, it doesn't disappoint.

    Not unless, like me, you were looking forward to the Schrader version.

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