Rarely has a film started behind the eight ball as much as “Exorcist: The Beginning”. Original director John Frankenheimer died before filming started, and lead Liam Neelson departed soon after. New director Paul Schrader completed the project, only to have his work junked by the producers, who started from scratch with third helmer Renny Harlin. It’s hard to believe anything watchable could come out of all this off screen turmoil, but surprising the fourth “Exorcist” film isn’t the train wreck it’s reputed to be and it is actually a fairly decent movie.
Lanchester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is an ex-priest who lost his faith after a brutal encounter with the Nazis. Now an archeologist one intervention away from joining AA , he’s sent to Kenya to investigate a mysterious buried church. But something is wrong with this church — it seems to have been built long before it should have been and appears to house demonic forces. The paranormal activity soon increases to amazing levels, and the local tribe begins to become more and more upset to the point where the British army is sent for. In the end, only Merrin can stop the demon dwelling in their midst, but can he restore his faith in God in time to defeat the Prince of Lies?
Stellan Skarsgard (“The Glass House”) is amazing as Merrin, a man whose wartime traumas robbed him of his faith in anything but himself. He plays a good man who seems to desperately want to believe, but his past keeps getting in the way. Merrin’s a tortured soul, unable to get past the time when the Nazis involved him in their killing of innocents, but whose natural inclination is to still do good.
Another good performance is Ralph Brown as Sergeant Major, an army officer dispatched to quell the natives, but who soon finds himself in over his head. In particular, his facial expressions and body movements when he comes to the realization that things are beyond his control, and that there might be only one permanent way out. The rest of the cast is decent, but largely unremarkable.
Third choice director Renny Harlin (“Mindhunters”) moves the film along at a decent pace, allowing for few dead spots and keeping the audience in anticipation of the conclusion. The main problem is that Harlin seems to be trying too hard, his scares are telegraphed, and the film’s atmosphere seems overdone. It’s as if he’s trying to return to the glory days when he helmed blockbusters like “Die Hard 2”, and seems to be using the fourth “Exorcist” to get back there. The direction is competent, but just feels forced and that detracts from the viewing experience. It’s hard to enjoy a film when you get the impression the director is using it as an audition for the next big budget epic.
The script by Alexi Hawley, based on a story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr, is decent. It is imaginative, with good character development, but nevertheless there are problems. Why is the much anticipated exorcism relegated to almost the end of the final act, and why does it seem so brief? Why is there a twist ending included when it has little effect on the viewing experience and plot? Why isn’t Pazuzu mentioned more clearly, instead of being shown as a statue that is never identified? These are all defects that if were corrected would have improved the film.
“Exorcist: The Beginning”, despite its problems, is still a decent film that could have been so much more. It’s not as bad as it has been made out to be, and certainly is a lot better than the series’ second film. We’ll just have to wait until the DVD arrives to compare this version against Paul Schrader’s cut, and see which is superior.
Renny Harlin (director)
CAST: Stellan Skarsgard …. Father Merrin
Izabella Scorupco …. Sarah
James D’Arcy …. Father Francis
Remy Sweeney …. Joseph
Julian Wadham …. Major Granville
Andrew French …. Chuma