Exorcist: The Beginning

Exorcist - The BeginningSynopsis: The prequel to The Exorcist. The scariest movie of all time.

Having abandoned his faith in God, Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) joins a British archaeological excavation in Kenya, where an inexplicably pristine Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed – looking as if it had been buried on the day it was completed. But beneath the church, something much older sleeps, waiting to be awoken. As madness swiftly descends upon the villagers and British soldiers, Merrin watches helplessly as atrocities are committed against an innocent village – atrocities he had seen before and prayed never to see again. The blood of innocents flows freely on the East African plain, and the horror has only just begun. In the place where Evil was born, Merrinm will finally see its true face.

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Exorcist: The Beginning 6.5

eyelights: the pace. the cast.
eyesores: its style over substance. the crappy CGI. the blue-screening. the fake scares.

“God is not here today, priest!”

‘The Exorcist: The Beginning’ is a prequel to the modern horror classic, ‘The Exorcist‘. As the title indicates, it’s a prequel, taking us 30 years prior to explore the character of Father Merrin. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because another film does the exact same thing: ‘Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist‘. In fact, they share more than just their basic plots.

You see, ‘The Beginning’ is actually the second iteration of the same production: the people at Morgan Creek, the company producing ‘Dominion’, were unhappy with the end result and decided to fire the director, Paul Schrader, do some rewrites and reshoot the whole thing again with a new director, Renny Harlin. The result: this picture, which was released as the official prequel to the original.

It was a mild box office success, but it failed to bring in enough cash for Morgan Creek to recoup their losses. So they decided to release ‘Dominion’ as well, not long after, forever confusing the !@#$ out of film-goers – and then home video enthusiasts (who couldn’t possibly tell the difference between one product or the other, given that both have the same star).

What’s interesting is just how different the films are from one another, given that they are both spawned from the same hellish production. Critics widely panned ‘Beginning’, and most were kinder to ‘Dominion’, but I find that both have their flaws. In the end, I think that ‘The Beginning’ is a much more exciting picture, and thus breezes by more swiftly than ‘Dominion’.

But it’s not a good movie. And it’s not an ‘Exorcist’ film. It just isn’t, not matter what the title and script say.

What director Renny Harlin has built with this picture is a ride. It follows the conventions of modern horror films, which is to keep the pace going, stir or jolt the audience as frequently as possible and eschew atmosphere for fear that they might stop paying attention or fall asleep. And yet, the original picture is gripping because of its atmosphere – at no point do you want to look away.

Right from the start, we know that this picture is just not going to be the class acts that ‘The Exorcist’ and even ‘The Exorcist III‘ were: it takes us back hundreds of years ago to a battlefield, where the lone survivor is a long-haired priest in battle garb. Around him are thousands of dead warriors, littering the CGI landscape. Away in the distance countless dozens of crucifixions are revealed.

Upside down crucifixions.

Naturally.

Right there and then, ‘The Beginning’ gives off the aura of a b-grade action film. And it suggests that the filmmakers will attempt to deliver an epic tale. The problem is that what worked in ‘The Exorcist’ was how understated it could be. Sure, it gave us a lot of chilling moments, but it had no action sequences in it save the short one at the climax; it merely told the stories of a girl and a priest.

But if you’re going to bring the return of a franchise in modern times, you have do it with gusto, I suppose. Or at least try to. Because, let’s face it: Harlin’s film reeks of cheapness – which is probably normal given that it’s the second attempt at making the same picture, and the studio only had so much money to invest. But imagine doing a Michael Bay movie on a Woody Allen budget…

Um, yeah.

The story this time takes us to 1949, in Cairo. Merrin is an imbibed ex-Priest hanging about an outdoor café when a man walks up to him and proposes to pay him to go to a Kenyan archaeological dig to find an artifact of a demon – a copy of which he’s handed. Merrin is reticent (he had previously ignored the man’s correspondences), but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he finally relents.

The rest of the movie naturally follows similar lines as the original (ahem… I mean, as ‘Dominion’) did: Merrin meets with the British Sergeant major in charge of the area, and is saddled with Father Francis. They find a church buried under the sand, but which is unworn, suggesting that it was buried right after completion. In it are statues of religious figures seemingly guarding the ground from above.

However, a lot of elements are changed around, and some are entirely different. For instance, the lead digger (who, for some reason is growing blisters on his face) is an important secondary figure, there are inexplicable convulsions amongst crew, and the lead archaeologist has gone mad and, before being institutionalized, was drawing picture of Pazuzu. Merrin’s past is also told in flashbacks here, not right from the onset.

There are character/casting changes as well. For instance, Cheche (a central figure in ‘Dominion’) is now Joseph, an entirely different boy, and he is normal – although he can mysteriously call on the hyenas. Sorry, I meant the really bad CGI hyenas. Father Francis is played by a different actor this time, due to a scheduling conflict, and Rachel is transformed into hottie paramour Sarah.

‘The Beginning’ is so full of crappy clichés it’s dispiriting. Like flocking bats, for instance. Or when Sarah takes a shower and wanders about in the dark in her towel when the power cuts off (we needed a little skin, after all). Or when the lights and radio all turn on at once after the power outage, even though they were out previously. And don’t get me started on the stupid twist at the end. Le sigh.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

In some areas, the film doesn’t even make much sense, seemingly eschewing logic for thrills – and cheap ones , at that. Sometimes it simply gets blatantly ridiculous.

For example:

  • Sarah is possibly the worst doctor ever: she can’t even put a band aid on properly. After Merrin cuts his hand vertically, she applies a small band aid horizontally – which, in effect, shouldn’t cover much of that gash.
  • When Merrin visits the sanitarium to talk to the insane archaeologist, the door opens by itself, and no one bats an eye. I can see it now: “Yep, happens all the time ’round these parts…”.
  • When the archaeologist commits suicide dramatically in front of Merrin, no one seems to wonder what happened. How he got hold of a shard of glass in the first place is beyond me. I guess he just did, just like interned crazies do.
  • It’s strange that Joseph is a red herring, given that he was able to call on the hyenas the way he did. Was he only temporarily possessed? Or was he also possessed, but Merrin made the mistake of overlooking this when his main adversary came forth?
  • While Merrin and Sarah make out in the hospital room, Joseph’s bed starts to move and then he has major convulsions. Sure, they get startled after a while, but nothing comes of it. No dialogue, no exams on Joseph, nothing. It just is.
  • It takes more than half the movie for Merrin to finally goes into the church (in ‘Dominion’ he goes pretty much right away). For a guy who’s been sent to explore it, he’s not in much of a hurry. Then he goes alone. Naturally.
  • Father Francis eventually divulges to Merrin that the Church believes this is the site of the fall of Lucifer. Ah, c’mon! That’s a pretty tall tale by any standard! And if they actually believed it, then why would they only send in the one guy?
  • Merrin is obstinately incredulous in the face of some really weird stuff. For someone who once had faith, you’d think that these signs would elicit a response from him. Nope. I mean, if he’d been a die-hard atheist, fine, but a priest…?
  • And when suddenly Merrin finds faith again, as we all knew he would, it’s to the sound of a beatific choir. Naturally.
  • In his fight with Pazuzu, Merrin presses his forehead against the possessed Sarah’s head and it makes smoke. What just happened? I didn’t realize that priests have this superpower in their forehead! Maybe it’s just exorcists…
  • After the exorcism, Sarah returns to her senses and then, for no reason whatsoever, suddenly starts to poor blood from the back of her head. And dies. Say what? I suppose that we couldn’t let Merrin get involved in a relationship! It would ruin everything!
  • At one point, the British Sergeant Major commits suicide (without interference, I might add), but then his troops are out fighting the locals. Why are they attacking? Who’s in charge of them? At least in ‘Dominion’ we saw his second-in-command watching over everything and taking over when things got out of hand. Here? Nothing. Just a horde of leaderless Brits.
  • Naturally, this leads to a HUGE slaughter at the end, to parallel the opening sequence. It was ridic once, it’s ridic twice. And to make matters worse, it’s really not in keeping with ‘The Exorcist’. ‘300’, perhaps, but not ‘The Exorcist’.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

The one good thing about ‘The Exorcist: The Beginning’ is that Merrin is not as grim in this iteration of the character. In ‘Dominion’, he pretty much sucks the air out of the room, making it difficult to side with him. Here, although he’s shown to be an alcoholic at first, he’s functional and comes off as a regular human being. Not an endearing one, but at least not and off-putting one.

That’s a good start with one’s lead.

The other thing that I like, and this is no doubt going to be controversial with fans of the series, is that I prefer the pace. While I recognize that ‘The Beginning’ is staged like a music video, with more jump scares and quick cuts and camera movement than you’d want, at least it moves – unlike ‘Dominion’, which drags along. This one is more stylish, more exciting in the way it was presented.

But it’s just not an ‘Exorcist’ film. Renny Harlin has made a pretty standard suspense picture with a horror bent to it, but it’s nothing like its progenitor: it’s ill-conceived in many ways, it doesn’t slowly build up the tension to eventually let loose in a furious final act, and it doesn’t present an engaging main character that you understand and care about. It’s an empty vessel.

It’s a beginning that goes nowhere.

Story: 7.0
Acting: 7.5
Production: 6.5

Chills: 3.0
Gore: 3.0
Violence: 4.0

Date of viewing: October 6, 2014

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