‘Exorcist: The Beginning’: What the Devil Is Going On Here?

I quite enjoyed the negative review of the latest Exorcist prequel from today’s NYT.

Spinning heads, cascades of pea soup and your mother’s Army boots are nowhere to be found in “Exorcist: The Beginning,” but lovers of the ridiculous may be delighted to know that the specter of little Linda Blair a-twitch and a-tremble is not entirely forgotten. A prequel to “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin’s 1973 shocker in which Ms. Blair played a child hijacked by Beelzebub, this new film comes gussied up with some fine talent and its very own bag of cheap tricks. But when push comes to demonic shove, hell apparently hath no fury like a woman in green pancake makeup just as surely as some producers have no shame.

“Exorcist: The Beginning,” which opened nationwide yesterday and given its doleful prospects may soon be known as “Exorcist: The End,” is the third feature film to be squeezed from the pulpy remains of Mr. Friedkin’s original. (That film spawned two less-acclaimed sequels, and four years ago it was re-released in theaters with some padding and tweaks.) Based on the William Peter Blatty best seller, the first “Exorcist” mostly entails the efforts of two priests trying to beat the devil out of Ms. Blair’s 12-year-old with the aid of pop metaphysics and some exceedingly dated special effects. A monster hit and very effective for a certain teenager who must remain nameless, Mr. Friedkin’s film has not held up well, but compared with this latest effort does vaguely resemble the classic of 1970’s cinema its fans tout it as.

“Exorcist: The Beginning” was directed by Renny Harlin, whose previous efforts include a solid “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel, a bad “Die Hard” sequel and the diverting thriller “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” Slick and devoid of any obvious personal signature, Mr. Harlin’s directorial style is serviceable enough for a movie like “Exorcist: The Beginning,” which exists solely to rake in cash during its opening weekend and settle into a long shelf-life in the DVD hereafter.

As it happens, the DVD release will be more interesting than the theatrical one if, as floated in Variety, it includes the version of this prequel shot by the director Paul Schrader. Mr. Schrader was fired from the project on grounds that his prequel was not scary. Mr. Schrader, in turn, had replaced the film’s initial director, John Frankenheimer, who died during preproduction.

All this background noise, alas, turns out to be more interesting than what has managed to finally make it on to the screen. Written by Alexi Hawley, who was brought in to revamp William Wisher and Caleb Carr’s earlier screenplay, “Exorcist: The Beginning” opens centuries ago with a priest stumbling through a landscape littered with bloodied corpses and the writhing bodies of the soon to be dead. From there it’s a fast cut to Cairo circa 1949, where amid the putatively exotic third-world sights and sounds the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard sits in a bar wearing the rumpled white suit and anomie of a B-movie hero. This world-weary traveler is, of course, Merrin, the same character played by the Swedish actor Max von Sydow in “The Exorcist,” but now without the sanctity of the priestly collar.

What ensues essentially conforms to the movie horror manual, though the production does benefit from the talents of the Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who has given the film a nice nicotine-stain patina. Wrapped in this burnished orange glow, Merrin, having taken a mysterious assignment, creases his brow and tries to discover what a Catholic church is doing buried in the sand in northern Kenya (actually Italy’s CinecittÔø? Studios), which is where most of the film’s 117 draggy minutes play out. Along for the ride are the usual movie suspects, including a beautiful doctor with peek-a-boo dÔø?colletage and a fondness for late-night showering (Izabella Scorupco), a young priest straight from the Vatican (James D’Arcy), a helpful local with a bull’s-eye fixed to his forehead (Andrew French) and various other sacrificial lambs, including children, all of whom are lovingly skewered with graphic detail.

Despite the body count and Mr. Harlin’s reliance on shock cuts and loud noises, “Exorcist: The Beginning” singularly fails to deliver any palpable shivers. Perhaps more expectedly, given the torturous production history and the unceremonious introduction of the movie (the studio didn’t screen the film for critics until the night before it opened), it does afford the occasional and presumably unintended laugh. Still, despite the risible dialogue, the bulging eyeballs, the heaving bosoms, the digitally rendered hyenas and squirming maggots, the movie fails to achieve the status of the instant camp classic. That’s partly because the vibe of the film is too torpid. It simply doesn’t have the buoyancy of camp, but mostly because it’s deeply unpleasant to watch children, even fictional children, murdered on the altar of greed. Thrills rarely get cheaper or more loathsome.

”Exorcist: The Beginning” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for graphic bloody violence, including images of young children being shot and torn apart by animals.


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