Warner Bros. continue to bill the original, 1973 "Exorcist" as "the scariest movie of all time." Well, it has been called that, but whether you agree with the sentiment is neither here nor there; it is a good movie. Then came 1977's "Exorcist II: The Heretic," which was one of the worst films of all time. But at least it starred Richard Burton and his magnificent voice. After that came the merely mediocre "Exorcist III: Legion" in 1990 with George C. Scott. And in 2004 it's "Exorcist: The Beginning." No numbers or numerals. This one is a prequel, and presumably the studio didn't want to confuse audiences any more than necessary. The movie can do that all by itself. "The Beginning" replaces Burton's voice and Scott's attitude with a boatload of blood. I can't say it's an improvement.
The screenplay for the first "Exorcist" was written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel of the same name, and directed by William Friedkin. "Exorcist II" used Blatty's characters, but other than that neither he nor Friedkin had anything to do with it; John Boorman directed it, much to his regret. "Exorcist III" saw the return of Blatty, who not only wrote the screenplay but directed it himself. "Exorcist: The Beginning" eschews much mention of Blatty at all, except as creator of the characters, and Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2," "Cliffhanger," "Cutthroat Island") took over as director.
But it still isn't as simple as that. No, because Harlin was the second director of "Exorcist: The Beginning." Not the second-unit director; the second full-time director. The first director was Paul Schrader, who actually completed shooting the whole thing before it was thrown out by the production company for not being gory enough. So Harlin was brought in and the entire movie was reshot, or at least 90% of it. It's estimated that Schrader's version cost the company about $30,000,000 and Harlin's version about $50,000,000. Can you imagine that? $80,000,000 plus the costs of advertising and distribution would put the movie's total costs well over the $100,000,000 mark. Even bringing in a respectable $40,000,000 at the box office, as it did, the film must have lost the studio a fortune. Maybe they'll sell a lot of DVDs. (I've read that video sales account for over fifty percent of a movie's income, so maybe this thing could still break even. But I wouldn't count on it.)
Anyway, let's start with the movie's fundamental problem; namely, it's not scary. Yep, the studio spent probably more than $100,000,000 to make a scary movie that wasn't scary. Well, we all make mistakes. "Exorcist: The Beginning" makes the mistake of confusing loud noises, grotesque images, obscene violence, and buckets of blood for frights. These things aren't frightening. They're revolting. Turning one's head in disgust is not the same thing as being terrified. The movie builds little or no suspense and creates only minimal tension in a couple of scenes. Compared to its illustrious progenitor, the 1973 "Exorcist," it fails on almost all counts, despite its attempt to emulate the style of the original and to establish a continuity between the two.
The new movie's story line relates how Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) back in 1949 came to be the Catholic Church's ace exorcist. Thus, the word "Beginning" in the title refers to Merrin's beginning as an exorcist, not to the beginning of exorcism in general. Just so we have that straight. I mean, exorcisms have been around for thousands of years. I'm boring you, I know. Think what the film will do.
So "Exorcist: The Beginning" shows us the exploits of a relatively young Father Merrin in 1949 some twenty-four years before the original "Exorcist" movie takes place. However, Stellan Skarsgard is in real life about ten years older (54) than Max von Sydow was (44) when Sydow played a supposedly older Father Merrin. I like Skarsgard, mind you; he's a fine actor. But I wonder why the filmmakers didn't consider casting someone who looked more obviously younger than Sydow? Didn't anybody at the studio think that at least a few viewers, particularly fans of the original movie, would notice that the priest in 1973 looks younger than the same character almost a quarter of a century earlier?
OK, it's Egypt, 1949, and Merrin has given up the priesthood. Having lived through the real horrors of World War II, he's lost his faith and become a full-time archaeologist instead. At the time of the story, he's been asked to investigate a mysterious dig to the far south, a Christian church buried in the sands. Merrin is told the church dates from "circa 5 A.D." Say what? 5 A.D.? Well, the guy means the fifth century A.D., as we quickly learn, but for a moment it's disconcerting to think of a Christian church having been built when Christ was hypothetically five years old. It's another of those niggling distractions that plague a misbegotten script.
As the plot goes on, Merrin discovers that the church was erected over a pagan temple, which was built on the very spot where Lucifer fell to Earth after the war in heaven. Apparently, the fallen angel has been imprisoned there ever since, until people come by occasionally and loose him on the world. Merrin is asked to recover a small, probably Samarian, artifact from the church, an artifact he finds but which then winds up playing virtually no part in the story. I still have no idea what that was all about. Merrin goes on to do his best work in the old church alone in the dead of night with only a lantern to see by. Go figure.
I liked the movie's opening scene: a vast, ancient battlefield, which, when the camera slowly pans back and over it, reveals the bodies of thousands of dead warriors. That was in the movie's first two minutes, and there was nothing else I liked about the show.
Along for the ride is Izabella Scorupco, playing a beautiful doctor, Sarah, assigned to the dig. Horror and sci-fi movies always have to have a beautiful doctor hanging around to lend a little sex appeal to the affair. Heaven forbid the plot or characters should be enough. James D'Arcy plays a young priest, Father Francis, who assists Merrin at the dig site. Father Francis is there on behalf of the Catholic Church, which is very interested in what Merrin may find. Julian Wadham plays a typically rigid British army officer, Major Granville, who is in charge of the dig and represents the British Empire's colonial racist attitudes. No stereotype is left uncovered. Remy Sweeney is the only appealing actor of the lot, playing a little boy who may be possessed of the devil. And Ben Cross has a thankless bit part as Semelier, a grim-faced fellow who sends Merrin out after the artifact. You remember Cross as one of the stars of the Oscar-winning "Chariots of Fire." Now he's doing cameos in dreadful fright flicks. I hope it was a lark.
As I've said, the filmmakers confuse scary with sickening. We are subjected, for instance, to repeated scenes of a young girl getting her brains blown out. We also watch as a child is torn apart by ravenous hyenas. You can see the cheapness of putting youngsters in danger and forcing us to watch them die. Then there are the axes to the brain, the faces rotting and falling off, the leeches, the throat slashings, and the endless blood, all of it accompanied by the usual ominous, liturgical-sounding background music. (Where was "Tubular Bells" when you needed it?)
When the final confrontation between Merrin and the Evil One arrives, it's more noisy than frightening. But at least Merrin regains his faith. How else could we have had an original "Exorcist"?
The best things about the movie are its picture and sound. The DVD video replicates much of the film's theatrical exhibition size, measuring a ratio approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen HD Sony XBR television. Warner Bros.' current practice of utilizing fairly high bit-rate transfers pays off in deep, solid hues and well-defined color contrasts. The overall image is slightly on the dark side, but that actually complements the movie's tone; and it's a bit glassy, too, but not much. There is only a small amount of grain to be found, except in some of the nighttime shots, and virtually no moiré or halo effects that I noticed.
The sound is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1, which I listened to, or DTS 5.1. Most everything about it works well, the dynamics especially impressive, with a strong, clear impact. The surrounds are also well exploited, with some good, spooky noises coming from the rear and sides of the listening area, sounds of crows, falling rocks, weird voices, animals in the night, and shrieking music. I missed a room-shaking bass, but other than that, the sonics are quite effective.
The most notable bonus item is an audio commentary with director Renny Harlin. I checked in on it throughout the film (they were welcome breaks from the drivel occurring on screen) and found Harlin a straightforward, no-nonsense kind of guy, explaining in some detail each scene and the background for it. Nonsense is still nonsense, but it's nice to know that somebody was taking it seriously. Then, there's an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with the director, the producer, and some of the cast members. Unfortunately, it doesn't reveal too much new, merely taking us through the plot and expounding on the obvious. The third bonus is one we don't see very much anymore--cast and crew biographies and filmographies. In the early days of DVDs, we found this sort of thing on every disc we bought, and then the idea sort of disappeared. So, welcome back. The extras conclude with thirty animated scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer (although in a 1.78:1 dimension); English as the only spoken language choice; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
No chapter insert came with the package, but there was an insert advertising other WB horror titles available on DVD. I wonder if it occurred to anyone at the studio that they could have printed the chapter selections on the insert, too, and people would have been more likely to keep it rather than toss it away as a junk ad.
In its favor, "Exorcist: The Beginning" is not as totally incomprehensible as "Exorcist II: The Heretic." Otherwise, the movie is a pretty repulsive mess.