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'Exorcist' prequel is an unpleasant experience

August 26, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Having seen "Exorcist: The Beginning," I have a modest proposal for Hollywood. Place a moratorium on prequels. Nothing good comes of them.

Set in 1949, "Exorcist: The Beginning" recounts Father Lankester Merrin's first encounter with the demon who possesses young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in "The Exorcist." This time Stellan Skarsgard ("King Arthur") takes on the role of Father Merrin, originally played by Max von Sydow.

Stellan Skarsgard digs up evil in ''Exorcist: The Beginning.''
Copyright © Warner Brothers
Stellan Skarsgard digs up evil in ''Exorcist: The Beginning.''
If you are among the unlucky ones who have suffered through John Boorman's embarrassing sequel, "Exorcist II: The Heretic," rated among the Internet Movie Database's 100 worst movies of all time, you may be thinking, "Haven't I seen this before?" That is because "Exorcist II" contains a flashback to Merrin's days as a missionary in East Africa, when he first encountered a demon called Pazuzu and cast him out of a young boy.

Well, the story of "Exorcist: The Beginning" bears no resemblance to the one of "Exorcist II." I can only assume the makers of "Exorcist: The Beginning" found "Exorcist II" to be as laughable as everyone else does and chose to ignore it. That isn't a bad idea, but "Exorcist: The Beginning" is not an improvement.

"Exorcist: The Beginning" is a mix of the original "Exorcist" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a summation which is far too kind. Father Merrin has forsaken his priestly calling and become an archaeologist following a horrific incident during World War II. When we first see him, he is getting drunk in a bar, where he is approached by a mysterious stranger (Ben Cross) who wants him to go to Africa to retrieve a Sumerian artifact, the significance of which is never explained.

More important is the abandoned church where the artifact was found. The ancient building, buried in the sand for 1,500 years, dates to a time before Christianity spread to Africa. Simply put, it shouldn't exist, and stranger still, it seems to have been buried on purpose.

We already know that Merrin will be a priest when he visits the possessed Regan years later. So, we also know that "Exorcist: The Beginning" will end with Merrin's faith having been tested and restored and with him having rejoined the priesthood. Everything else is just marking time.

Merrin's first test comes in the form of a pretty Red Cross doctor named Sarah (Izabella Scorupco). The sexual tension between them is obvious, but given that Merrin isn't still a priest, one wonders what the big deal is.

Inside the church, Merrin discovers a painting of Lucifer and an upside down crucifix. A young priest, Father Francis (James D'Arcy), fresh from a stint in the Vatican's reading room, later reveals that the church was built on the site where Lucifer fell to Earth after the war in heaven. As it turns out, Father Francis is full of useful information, all of which he keeps to himself until it is too late.

While Merrin is busy investigating the church and running off to find the archaeologist who first excavated the site (and went mad in the process), all hell is breaking loose among the local tribesmen. Hyenas rip one boy to shreds, and a woman gives birth to a stillborn baby whose body is crawling with maggots.

Flasback ad nauseum

Most horror movies spare the children. This one revels in slaughtering them. Apart from the maggot-infested baby and the boy who becomes hyena chow, we get a flashback of a Nazi officer shooting a little girl in the head. This flashback is repeated ad nauseam, just in case anyone has missed the point that the Nazis were bad guys.

Director Renny Harlin ("Deep Blue Sea") was hired to reshoot a few scenes after studio executives deemed Paul Schrader's original cut of "Exorcist: The Beginning" insufficiently scary and gory. Harlin ended up reshooting the entire film from a revised script and filling it with computer-generated hyenas and flies. Apparently, you can't find real hyenas and flies to put in movies anymore.

As for Merrin's inevitable showdown with the devil, it more resembles a pro-wrestling match than it does an exorcism.

"Exorcist: The Beginning" isn't laughable. It's downright unpleasant. And that is a far worse sin.

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