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Craig's Movie Club
Movie Recommendations

Spotlight on: Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning

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Cover of Exorcist: The Beginning DVD Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning

My first thought upon entering the theater was "This had better be good, considering they paid for two movies to get this one." Luckily, I was not disappointed. Exorcist: The Beginning is a solid devil-thriller with good lead performances (particularly from Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin, playing Max von Sydow's character from The Exorcist), an easy-to-follow script from newcomer Alexi Hawley -- based on the story from William Wisher (Terminator 2) and Caleb Carr (The Alienist) -- that assumes intelligence from its audience, and an ending that ties up (most of) the loose ends.

This is a movie, however, that seemed to be doomed from the start. After John Frankenheimer walked off the set only months before his death, writer (Taxi Driver) / director (Affliction) Paul Schrader was brought on board. Schrader's more psychological take on Merrin's story (What did they expect? Haven't they seen his films?) was shot down by the studio for not being scary enough (although it will be simultaneously released on DVD with this version) and Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2) was hired to punch things up. Eventually, this required an almost complete rewrite and reshoot, with characters being lost and new ones added and the film being recast, with only Skarsgård remaining (having taken the role from Liam Neeson when Frankenheimer left).

Despite all this shuffling, it appears that the cast and crew got down to business and produced the best Exorcist film since the first one. Exorcist: The Beginning should satisfy fans looking for a psychological portrait of Lancaster Merrin's struggle toward reacquiring his belief and those looking for a cracking good exorcism denouement that recalls the imagery of the original.

Having renounced his faith after the atrocities he experienced in Nazi Germany, Father Merrin ("that's 'Mister' Merrin") is now more interested in his archeology. A British collector (Chariots of Fire's Ben Cross) approaches him to locate an ancient artifact in Kenya from the site of an old church that the Vatican denies was ever built. Accompanying him as a fellow guest of the Major in charge of the site is young Father Francis (James D'Arcy) who idolizes Merrin and hopes to bring him back into the fold. When he arrives, he meets Sarah (former "Bond girl" Izabella Scorupco, Goldeneye), the attractive doctor at the site and tries his best not to fall for her. (They find their shared histories more a draw than a repellent.) Meanwhile, one of Sarah's charges, young Joseph (son of a converted native) is exhibiting all the cinematic signs of demonic possession. Then there's that poor guy with the pestilent face...

The love story (such as it is) provides a much needed respite from all the satanic action taking place and Scorupco's Michelle Pfeifferian features are certainly a pleasure to look at among all the rough-looking men and the natives. Although it is precisely those features of Skarsgård that make him a good fit for this role. He has an inherent weariness that he has used to great effect before (Insomnia, Good Will Hunting), a sense that this is a man who has been through a lot and is just waiting for it to be over -- but, no, here's something else! At the same time, he has a plainness to his features that breeds familiarity and immediate empathy. Scorupco makes a good love interest and the secrets she hides bring out an entirely new dimension to her character.

The final confrontation between Merrin and the demon recalls the first Exorcist, and in a good way. The familar make-up, voice effects, and sexually-related dialogue turn what could have been merely a mockery into a thrill ride. Laughter is called for in some situations (simply from the outrageousness), but it is nothing that mars the experience. It is easy to see from this scene why the older character in the earlier film has such an intense response to being in a similar situation again. Elsewhere, some of the special effects stretch the suspension of disbelief (you'd think flies wouldn't be so difficult; hyenas, I'm not so sure), but here they fit seamlessly, only coming to the fore when a character does something impossible.

Harlin, Skarsgård, and company have finally added a proper entry to the Exorcist canon with Exorcist: The Beginning, offering up a fascinating character study combined with a rip-roaring horror flick. All this build up -- and the follow-through of this film -- now has me itching to see the Paul Schrader version.

(Update: I later saw the Paul Schrader version and, as much as it surprises me to say it, it looks like the studio made the right decision: it's deadly boring!)


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