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Exorcist: The Beginning

01/10/2004. Contributed by Frank Ochieng

Buy Exorcist The Beginning in the USA - or Buy Exorcist The Beginning in the UK

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The scattershot incompleteness to Renny Harlin's ill-advised follow-up to William Friedkin's classic creep show is evident in the flimsy frightfulness of the overwrought and putrid prequel Exorcist: The Beginning. For those that had to endure inferior sequels to Friedkin's twisted and treasured pea soup-regurgitating nightmarish narrative (read: Exorcist: The Heretic), they may yearn more for this sluggish supernatural tale to end as opposed to embracing its so-called Beginning.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) Warner Brothers
1 hour 54 minutes.
Starring: Stellan Starsgard, Izabella Scorupco, James D'Arcy, Remy Sweeney, Julian Wadham, Andrew French
Directed by: Renny Harlin

The scattershot incompleteness to Renny Harlin's ill-advised follow-up to William Friedkin's classic creep show is evident in the flimsy frightfulness of the overwrought and putrid prequel Exorcist: The Beginning. For those that had to endure inferior sequels to Friedkin's twisted and treasured pea soup-regurgitating nightmarish narrative (read: Exorcist: The Heretic), they may yearn more for this sluggish supernatural tale to end as opposed to embracing its so-called Beginning.

Granted Harlin's overbearing showcase of messy mayhem tries diligently to present a chaotic and complex twist in an effort to ignite the perverted passion that was Friedkin's impeccable shock-filled universe. However, Harlin's hackwork screams volumes of a falsely moody and generic scarefest that is notably laughable more than its overproduced claim as a legitimate goosebump thriller.



Apparently, the disjointed and dreary on-screen presentation of Exorcist: The Beginning doesn't just make a needless spectacle of itself in front of the camera. Reportedly, behind the scenes of this spellbinding stinker was a constant struggle to ensure the completion of Harlin's plagued project. Bombarded with complaints about the movie's original director Paul Schrader and the way he wanted to approach this film's sketchy outlook, Harlin was hired to re-shoot with new casting and breathe some life into this vapid venture. Regardless of either Harlin or Schrader's pronounced touch on this flaccid frightfest, Exorcist: The Beginning is the epitome of a disastrous drama that can't hold a dime store candle to the heralded inspiration it tries to exploit with tired, cheesy results.

Sad to say, the need to revisit The Exorcist franchise once again in an attempt to recreate the morbid magic that stimulated the Satanic-induced sensationalism wouldn't be enough to spin around horror heroine Linda Blair's possessed head in an uncontrollable circle. Along with Harlin's glib and uneventful direction, screenwriter Alexi Hawley delivers a tedious and tattered script that blindly rambles on without once reinforcing this staid story with saying anything worthwhile in terms of the indelible mark it wants to make on the audience's jittery consciousness.

At best, the chills are routinely atmospheric and one may have an occasional edgy reaction. But for the most part, the plodding buildup is somewhat monotonous and one will sit there wondering what's in store for the manufactured evil that Harlin and Hawley methodically deliver with the riveting tension of watching water drip.

The premise involves the early days of Kenya-bound Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) long before his prolonged tangle with the pesky Lucifer saddled in suburbanite sass Blair's battered body in the original edition. Incidentally, Skarsgard takes over the reins of portraying the weary Father Merrin from Max Von Sydow who courageously donned the collar in the unforgettable first installment. Anyhow, Skarsgard's Father Merrin is a cynical soul whose taste for booze is prevalent as he looks to drown out the deeply emotional scars of his checkered past and current existence.

As an archeologist and self-appointed avid adventurer, Merrin decides to grace his presence upon the late 1940's East African landscape where he's there to investigate the mystique of a newly discovered unearthed church that caters to some ominous, carefree vibes. A survivor of World War II disillusionment, Merrin has seen his share of unspeakable experiences so going to Nairobi and unmasking the ghastly spirits of this head-scratching African temple is nothing new to this religious rogue with the inquiring mindset. Along the way, Merrin will encounter strange yet fascinating personalities as well as colorful demonic occurrences that seem to pop up arbitrarily for shock value sake.

Thus, the obvious questions are asked as we witness our relentless Indiana Jones-esque prototype holy man that is being grudgingly submitted to the bewildering process of an unexplainable phenomenon. What will the intrepid but flawed Father Merrin encounter in this seedy place of worship? Why was this church buried in the first place? What will the consequences be for disturbing the sanctity of this perplexing place? Plus, will Merrin ever recover from his alcoholic cloudiness and try to redeem his faith in himself and in the destructive nature of the human race's spiritual shortcomings?

There's no doubt that Exorcist: The Beginning has a tall order to fill by desperately trying to echo the scathing havoc that was so subversively delicious in Friedkin's 1973 occult oldie but goodie. It's a given that the ability to enhance the filmmaking techniques to incorporate a more convincingly eye-popping dark saga has its advantages in Beginning as opposed to three decades ago when the first serving of Friedkin's hellish peep show might be considered rustic by today's moviemaking standards.

Still, there was an inherent energy and freshness to the penetrating thrills that captured the fragile imagination to one of the cinema's most terrifying and tantalizing treats in modern movie history concerning The Exorcist. But in Exorcist: The Beginning, the woefully cliché and strained proceedings are simply run-of-the-mill and nonsensical without one drop of artistic gloominess to heighten its artificial impact. In short, this prepackaged prequel is a sorry shell of its former self.

The dullness behind Harlin's intent to instill some vigor into Beginning is so misguided that he doesn't even realize how much he's awkwardly borrowing from other films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Omen. This, of course, threatens to discredit his piece of entertainment as being viably durable in its own entity. Unfortunately, the murky set designs and nostalgic gothic feel to this uneven rousing melodrama doesn't begin to capture whatever jumpy effect Harlin wants to recycle in his rickety rouser. As a substandard piece of B-movie schlock, Harlin and his handlers don't even have the decency to pump this ball of cockeyed confusion into something mildly campy that would at least salvage some of it fleeting appeal.

As the worn-out warrior of the cloth, Skarsgard is effective in his haggard interpretation of the Oxford-educated Father Merrin with the distinctive sense of psychological detachment. But given the mundane and mawkish material that languishes on ad nauseam, Skarsgard's lost and drunken spiritual leader Merrin is tainted because of the goofy flourishes and maddening moments that teeter on the boredom meter.

Basically, the film wants to grab more than it can chew. When the protocol doesn't call for manipulative measures that require freaky flashbacks meant to solicit knee jerk reactions to shadowy tics then the movie finds itself bouncing between a weak-kneed love story and a display of the convoluted creeps replete with CGI red-eyed hyenas and blood-gushing body parts. There's even a suggested but played-down political commentary about the British bureaucracy on Kenyan soil that have the nerve to merely 'tolerate' its unruly natives by dismissing them as savages yet this is never truly explored.

The supporting roles in Beginning are thankless and that's not very comforting in a horror genre that depends on standby characterizations to elevate the cause for caustic conflict. As the resident physician caught up in the horrific high jinks, Izabella Scorupco is radiant but doesn't bring much to the table otherwise. James D'Arcy is on hand as the young priest willing to do what it takes to curve some of the animated happenings. And last but certainly not least - the Devil himself!

As repulsive and reprehensible that you would think this hellish hoot would be, the Devil surprisingly doesn't have any new tricks up his wicked sleeves. Hence, the much-anticipated confrontations between the determined but damaged Father Merrin and the savvy Satan have all the urgency of a boxing match between a dippy Dallas Cowboy cheerleader and a grumpy Hells Angel biker.

Notoriously under-whelming in its bid to get under one's sensitive skin Exorcist: The Beginning is an inexplicable tease for true horror hedonists that wouldn't take Harlin's brand of pointless, protrusive propaganda so seriously.

Frank Ochieng

(c) Frank Ochieng 2004. All rights reserved.

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