arely 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
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.