½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco, James D'Arcy, Remy Sweeney
screenplay by Alexi Hawley
directed by Renny Harlin
by Walter Chaw Beginning with a kinky apocalypse that Ken Russell would surely have created had ever he the budget and equipment, Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning is good, old-timey drive-in exploitation garbage. It hates children with a unique fury, boasting the highest dead-kid count since Schindler's List, and sure enough, somehow Harlin manages to work in an uncomfortable subplot about exorcising Holocaust demons as our happy Catholics exorcise a literal one. I don't know if Paul Schrader, the man who helmed the first run at this troubled production (the very first director attached was the late John Frankenheimer)--ostensibly scrapped because it wasn't scary enough (and frankly, the guy who did the Nastassja Kinski Cat People should probably not be going near horror movies in the first place)--included a Holocaust subplot in his version of the flick, but I'm hoping not. Mainly because when you introduce a Holocaust subplot into a movie that also features hyenas ripping apart a little boy in protracted, excruciating detail, a woman giving birth to a maggot-infested infant, and another Holocaust survivor bleeding gallons from her Nazi-ruined vagina, you're wandering into the territory of cinema as audience punishment.
Stepping into Max Von Sydow's shoes as Lancaster Merrin, Stellan Skarsgård plays a fallen priest a little like Jason Miller in the original The Exorcist and a lot like Mel Gibson in the awful Signs. A drinker with an eye for the ladies, he's hired by the Vatican to investigate a church buried in Kenya 1500 years before (he says "5 A.D.," which would actually make it 1944 years ago according to the film's timeline, but the devil is in the details), which is a problem for the Church because Christianity didn't enlighten that corner of the dark continent until much later. (The less said about how much this premise mirrors the one that opens the concurrently-released Alien Vs. Predator, the better.) Once on African soil, Merrin befriends the requisite Man Friday among the savages (who has a spear with his name on it), confronts the requisite white despoiler (Alan Ford), and strikes up a flirtation with the requisite hot white doctor played by a foreign-born actress, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco, channelling Greta Scacchi and Connie Nielsen). It seems that not only are the natives so terrified of the dig as to have deserted it in great numbers, but also that the previous head of the expedition has gone mad and been interred in an asylum, where he spends his time drawing devilish things with charcoal. Oh, and there's a cheesy CGI hyena problem that no one's doing anything about.
Exorcist: The Beginning is a throwback in its racial attitudes, its enthusiastic and poisonous misogyny, and its fascination with all the shiny details of every little atrocity. It leers in the way that only Harlin can, trained as he is in the Michael Bay school of slow push-ins, slow pull-outs, slow pans, and generally unmotivated slow-motion. He tries to infuse cars pulling up in front of a building with the import of the Second Coming, scoring every coffee cup set on a table like a marble slab has been dropped on a kettledrum. Brought in to re-shoot a film said to be lacking in the visceral, Harlin has made every single gesture the hurricane instead of the butterfly flapping its wings. When a stick-pinned collection of butterflies does take wing, it represents the single most unthreatening horror movie bogey in the history of such things ("Oh no, butterflies"), in addition to sounding like a swarm of helicopters blaring Wagner.
Playing fast and loose with its twists, Exorcist: The Beginning also lacks anything resembling a narrative thread, jumping instead from one cheap shock to another. It doesn't take much wit for me to jump out of the bushes at you waving a bloody mutton chop, and Exorcist: The Beginning is the equivalent of that variety of obnoxious ass-clownery. It's a mercenary bit of manipulation undertaken by a hired gun that bears no relationship to art, no interest in depth--it's aberrant, derivative, and in its conclusion's startling resemblance to a Kiwanis Club haunted house, surprisingly dull: the one thing it wasn't supposed to be anymore. I don't have a problem, per se, with movies that murder kids and traffic in severe gynophobia, understand, and even confess a weakness for boring exploitation flicks. But Exorcist: The Beginning, in unwisely taking on a few big issues (genocide, female fertility, colonialism), becomes in that presumption something odious and noxious.
by Bill Chambers Sort of inevitable that Warner/Morgan Creek's DVD release of Exorcist: The Beginning doesn't, despite rumours promising the contrary, contain the Paul Schrader incarnation of the film (which will premiere at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film (click here for a link to the trailer)), so perhaps the bigger letdown of this disc is the coyness of its supplementary material, which alludes to Schrader's version only in terms of the unusual duress that replacement director Renny Harlin was under in helming a prequel to one of the biggest breadwinners in the studio stable. Before his solo commentary track devolves into a mechanical, albeit helpful, plot briefing, Harlin reveals that he was expected to go from pre- to post-production within a ten-month span; all things considered, the film is probably better than it should be, though when Harlin gripes about having next to no money to play with, one can't help but think he did even more with even less on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
Genius-level cinematographer Vittorio Storaro receives due treatment from not only Harlin (who implies that the chance to work with Storaro was one of his main reasons for agreeing to do the film), but also the folks in mastering: The 2.36:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* is incredibly rich from beginning to end, with shadow detail occasionally collapsing into inky pools of black on purpose, if I'm to parse Harlin's notes on the digital grading correctly. Since this is the rare Warner title with a DTS option, I wish I could be nearly as enthusiastic about the 5.1 audio, but Exorcist: The Beginning has the most gracelessly pummelling soundmix this side of Armageddon, and DTS just intensifies the agony. (Still, it's presented with obvious fidelity to intent.) A useless--and, at a mere 8 minutes, somehow severely padded--behind-the-scenes featurette, cast/crew biographies/filmographies (nice to see those are back in vogue), and Exorcist: The Beginning's trailer round out the platter. Originally published: March 1, 2005.
*Also available in fullscreen.