Title: Exorcist: The Beginning
Year: 2004
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Play time: 
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenwriters: William Peter Blatty, William Wisher
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco, James D’Arcy

Expectations can be a rotten thing, and they just might run Exorcist: The Beginning right into the ground. By now, of course, everyone knows the story, from John Frankenheimer’s death to Paul Schrader’s unceremonious dismissal to the hilariously logical hiring of Renny “Deep Blue Sea” Harlin to reshoot the entire thing. Slavishly obeying the bad word-of-mouth that naturally followed all this, the studio decided to hide the movie from critics upon its release, sending industry mudslingers into a frenzy. Getting buried under all the anti-hype is the film itself, which is impressive on a number of levels and awful on precious few.

Perhaps Harlin’s conscience bothered him and he decided not to defame Schrader by succumbing to his basest instincts — the ones that were responsible for Cutthroat Island or Cliffhanger (note to the pedants: I don’t think either of those are bad films, but they sure aren’t Exorcist films). Here, he does some decidedly uncharacteristic things — he’s patient, he manipulates color schemes, he moves his camera with some measure of care. The plot eventually takes off for patented schlockmeister territory, but by then the film had achieved a level of dignity I wasn’t expecting.

For all his orders to ratchet up the gore factor, Harlin isn’t afraid to linger on chilling imagery, effectively expanding the franchise’s iconography. It would be easy to paint all the upside-down crucifixes and the Linda Blair Redux climax as cynical exploitation of the original film which is, after all, deeply embedded in our pop culture psyche, if not for the fact that Harlin and his screenwriter, Alexi Hawley, are genuinely interested in exploring the character of Lankester Merrin (Skarsgard), who returns played by Max Von Sydow in William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece. Amusingly, Skarsgard is several years older than Von Sydow was when he portrayed the same character decades later in life.

So yes, the complaints about the overzealous CGI and openly derivative final act are warranted, if somewhat misplaced. Meanwhile, I was impressed by the way the film continued to frame everything in terms of the protagonist’s crisis of faith — even its most lurid indulgences have a point and an effect on Mr./Father Merrin. The manner in which he eventually regains his faith and again comes to don the collar is direct and moving — on one hand, he seems to have no choice, but he’s not wimping out either: he doesn’t throw himself on God’s mercy but shows remarkable courage even once he turns back to Him.

On a visceral level, the film is uneven; there are some decent scares and one masterful scene involving a tribal exorcism (if Oscars were given out based on merit, the Sound award would be in the bag), but an equal amount of shoddy effects work, cheesy demonic hyenas and laughable plot twists. Once again, though, the way these hit-and-miss elements are deployed is more interesting than the elements themselves: I loved how Harlin reintegrates the opening flashback into the later present-day action; he doesn’t hammer in the connection, and it takes a couple of minutes for us to piece it together.

There are other intriguing bits. This is, for example, a rare unabashedly positive portrayal of the Catholic Church, and the powerful final shot uses the Vatican as a symbol for absolute good. The honesty of such an approach aside, I enjoyed its audacity — it remains hip to attack the Church, and it was neat to see a movie that’s interested in something different. Skarsgard is the kind of actor who can evoke emotion out of stoicism and inexpressiveness; he’s also a trooper for doing this movie twice. And of course, a special shout-out to Paul Schrader, whose vision for this film will, with any luck, see the light of day on DVD.


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