[Review originally published on BloodyNews.com in 2004]
I found myself almost a month late viewing the film I covered for nearly five years on my website. Well, actually – I could have been 18 months late… I guess it all depends on which version you’re talking about and which changed-release-date you believed in.
Regardless, on August 20 2004, Exorcist: The Beginning opened around the States and came in at number 1 for the weekend, taking over 40 million at the coveted Box Office. Pretty impressive.
I read a mixed bag of reviews. Some were ‘for’ the film, most against it. I tried my hardest to not read too much into any of the reviews. I was going to watch the film on my terms with a clear head – a clear conscience and decide for myself. I owed myself that much, after all.
Funny, I thought, that most of the people who were saying they really enjoyed it suggested you should watch it without thinking about the original Exorcist. If you just watch it as a film unto itself – they said – then it really is a great film. Perhaps that is true. I will never know.
Now, I understand that there is an entire generation of cinema enthusiasts who likely haven’t even seen or bothered with the original (18 million in one weekend, anyone?), but as a far as I am concerned, this is a prequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time. For me to sit through it and NOT draw comparisons to the original would be ludicrous! The original is the ONLY reason this new prequel exists, against the wishes of the creator, William Peter Blatty. I WILL draw comparisons as I watch and no one should be expected to do otherwise. If they didn’t want us thinking about The Exorcist while we sat for two hours, they should have called it ‘Terror in the Tomb’ or something, not using the name we hold so dear. Hey – come to think of it – they might have made more money that way!
So, I figured I’d give this film the ultimate challenge. See if it lived up to the original 1973 classic. See if Morgan Creek made a prequel worthy of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty’s timeless masterpiece. I watched the original first. Then, straight afterwards, I watched the prequel.
And I’m not talking any TV screen here, folks. I made sure I was watching this thing properly! I had a theatre all to myself – cinema screen, all the way. The whole bit. Popcorn. Confectionary. The Exorcist followed by Exorcist: The Beginning. Yup, I was all set.
Kicked back, I went through The Exorcist yet again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this, yet it never fails to fascinate me. Every shot deliberate, every scene telling its own story, every expression detailing a hidden past. So beautifully, naturally and deliberately shot, The Exorcist is perfectly paced and unravels itself to be a true rollercoaster of faith, horror, self-belief and humanity. How one film can bring all these emotions to the boil with (seemingly) such a basic plot is a true fascination of mine. The performances are so real, and the direction so unique, that when we see the horrors unfold before our very eyes, we don’t question it. It’s just happening and release from it is not an option. You’re hooked. You’ve seen a masterpiece and you know it. You’ve watched The Exorcist. And, if you’re like me, you’re somewhat of a fan forever. You’ll never forget nor match experience of the first time you saw Blatty and Friedkin wave their magic wand across your blessed vision. It’s their gift wrapped up in 120 minutes of celluloid ribbon.
All this rushed through me again as the final credits punched their moments onto the big screen while the haunting sounds of ‘Fantasia for Strings’ consumed the cinema I was sitting in.
Not that there was any doubt, but watching The Exorcist again on the cinema screen re-confirmed (for me) that it is without a doubt the greatest film of all time.
Then it was time to watch The Beginning…
Before we get into this, let me just go on record by saying, I don’t agree too much with over-the-top or blatant use of CGI in films. I understand it is a fantastic tool for cinema, and when used appropriately, it can go by un-noticed and work exceptionally well. I guess my gripe is with CGI monsters and special effects that are just so clearly CGI – those things really bug me.
(For me) film is about witnessing an event. It’s about looking into characters lives and going on an emotional ride with the, be it love, passion, action, horror, confusion or otherwise. A camera lens works very much like the human eye, which is part of the concept. Depth of field, blurring, movement… These should all emulate a kind of voyeur feel to allow us into these character’s lives and be apart of their emotions. CGI and the filmmakers behind it, as of late, seem to have forgotten this concept and it seems some are relying on CGI to keep their film up-to-date. If making films was about a race to use the best technology to bring an audience in, we wouldn’t still talk about Gone With The Wind.
Some recent CGI movement hasn’t ‘felt right’. For instance, CGI effects/characters in Hulk and Van Helsing look more like a purpose-animated Shrek rather than actual believable characters. Yet Steven Spielberg had me believing dinosaurs were walking among humans before the Pentium chip was developed. Go figure.
I mention my petty gripe with inappropriate CGI because it affected the opening of Exorcist: The Beginning.
We fade up on a priest looking distraught. Bloodied and seemingly lost, he shuffles through a war field of dead soldiers, crosses lace the scenery and the sky is a fiery red. The composition is fantastic. Looks superb. The mood it sets is intriguing, to say the least. I was excited.
The priest bends over to steal an amulet from a dying soldier. It resembles Pazuzu.
Then, while he stumbles under the gaping sky, or point of view quickly and un-naturally zooms away from him. Under some crosses upside-down crosses bearing bodies… whoosh! Over a hill… whoosh whaaam! A slight tilt… whoosh whoosh! And we reach our destination – some more crosses upside down on a hill several miles from where we just saw Merrin standing.
Every single ‘whoosh!’ CGI moment screamed at me: “REMEMBER!! YOU ARE WATCHING THIS IN 2004 AND IT IS LOOKING COOL! ISN’T IT GREAT WHAT WE CAN DO WITH COMPUTERS THESE DAYS?!” I didn’t want to feel that.
I wanted to feel what that priest was feeling. I wanted to see what he could see. I wanted the film to act like it WAS 1944. Well shot scenes and the good old film cut. You can’t tell me that CUTTING from the priest to those crosses, instead of swooping past the entire war field, would have been less effective. Hell – it would have been more NATURAL.
Perhaps it was up to me (and every viewer who watches this prequel) to divorce themselves from the fact that computers helped create what we were seeing. Usually this isn’t a problem because it is done so elaborately; done so well that we don’t even NOTICE computers were used. We’re over it. We can accept and/or understand removing wires, altering composition or other ‘handy’ CGI stuff because it goes by un-noticed. But the CGI in this opening scene didn’t aid the shot in ANY way. It ruined the scene and had ‘there is blatantly no need for this shot’ written all over it.
I slumped in my chair and tried hard not to think of current trends in popcorn films, the use of CGI and the predictable dialogue… But I couldn’t resist. My mind quickly slotted what I had just seen into the CLICHÉ category. Things weren’t looking good… there was still 115 minutes to go.
The longer it was on, the deeper I slumped into my chair, my eye twitching disgracefully as the scenes rolled on.
Watching Exorcist: The Beginning was like watching a dearly loved companion being violently torn to shreds before your very eyes while you are hopeless to help. Powerless, all you can do is sit and watch as everything that was pure and honest to you is shamelessly removed from your soul and slapped onto a flickering canvas. For the first time I started to understand how Alex must really feel in A Clockwork Orange. All that was missing was Beethoven and an eyelid contraption.
In utter disbelief, I watched as the film stumbled its way through a series of misguided scenes to the final act.
There are some major holes in the writing as the film awkwardly reveals itself to really have no core. No soul. It just plods along, hoping you’ll bounce in your seat at a few try-hard scary moments. Cheap scares that don’t work and belong in I Know What You Did Last Exorcism. Again, stored directly into the cliché category.
There is no substance. Nothing to relate to. I couldn’t relate to Merrin or any of the characters in The Beginning like I could with Damien Karras, Chris McNiel or even Kinderman in the original. Sure, E:TB is a story of faith- but that doesn’t mean I will instantly be moved. I think I wanted to learn more from Merrin. Take something away; learn something to call my own.
It was plainly obvious Merrin was going to restore his faith in the end and defeat the demon. It’s a PREQUEL.
So, one should then assume it would be the journey that would bring you into the film. Watch him thumb for his faith in darkness and somehow find it within himself. A human triumph of self-believing and rediscovery in the face of evil… Yet the way it was done was so cardboard. So run-of-the-mill. What we end-up with is a double negative: A wasted opportunity poorly delivered.
Merrin is FORCED to reach out to his faith so he can perform an exorcism out of the blue (Legion, anyone?). Luckily, he wins the day.
Instead of concentrating documentary-style story-telling efforts on Merrin searching within himself, Morgan Creek shamelessly relied on a big twist in the final act. The little boy we thought was possessed and would need the exorcism is in fact perfectly fine (despite him displaying blatant Signs Of Exorcism 101 all film). Nope, it turns out the young female doctor and love-interest for Merrin (yes – love interest. Don’t get me started) Sarah is the one who ultimately is possessed, despite never displaying signs of possession.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought possession was supposed to be a long, drawn-out process, sending a person into personal conflict and turmoil, anguish and confusion as the demon takes advantage of their weaknesses and ultimately takes charge of their soul.
Pazuzu was David Copperfield waaay before his time, it seems, as Sarah is revealed to be possessed completely out of the blue. Nice surprise. Makes no sense at all and ruins any structure we had, ignoring all established possession by-laws, but nice twist.
Some might argue at this point that “at least they were trying to be original and unpredictable and not go through the same possession routine”. Warranted – but then we shouldn’t be expected to take it seriously, and they shouldn’t have called it ‘Exorcist’. Again, I would have probably been more okay with this story had it been some other priest character under a different title for the film.
So, once Sarah is revealed to be Hyper-Possessed, we are treated to a brief and questionable Exorcism that resembles a cheesy ‘final boss’ sequence in a fantasy role-playing videogame on PlayStation.
Having disregarded the rules of possession literally seconds earlier, The Beginning next relies on these same rules The Exorcist brought to the forefront, as Sarah displays impossible body contortion to try and convince us with more of those scare tactics. It’s actually pretty cool at first – until she flies through the air toward Merrin (in an attempt at what, I’m wondering?) before the demon is driven out of her by a super-powered force-field cross. Phew! Lucky.
It is quite possibly the most ridiculous exorcism you could think of. Its very cut’n’dry and has an over-the-top conclusion. The Mummy fans would have loved it.
Probably my BIGGEST gripe (besides the kissing scene between Merrin and his ‘love interest’) is the possession make-up. Just about everyone attached to this project claimed they were ‘huge fans of The Exorcist’. I’m wondering if any of them actually paid any attention when they watched it. Did they study it before they went ahead and shot The Beginning?
You see, if they had watched Mark Kermode’s brilliant documentary for the BBC ‘The Fear of God’, they would have seen Friedkin explain plain as day that the scars and gashes on Regan’s face were caused by her injuring herself. Possibly using the crucifix. Makes sense. And if one actually WATCHES The Exorcist and is actually a FAN, one would come to that conclusion without the director sitting in a chair explaining it like a brick-to-the-face.
Yet, it seems Renny and his misguided team assumed this is how a standard possessed female should look. Despite not showing any signs of possession, no signs of inner struggle or soul torment -she appears to have the scars lining her face. There is just no explanation. She just HAS the scars. It really did baffle me, and – as it is in the final sequence of the film, it left an unfortunate negative reaction in my mind.
There were some positives, however. Skarsgard performance was exceptional. In my opinion, he did a brilliant job of portraying Father Merrin. Better than anyone else I could think of from today’s crop of actors. There were times I felt sorry for him, though, as his performance is overshadowed by poor effects, direction and delivery.
And make no mistake, this film looks fantastic despite its disappointing delivery – but that was always going to be somewhat of a given. Vittorio Storaro is a legendary cinematographer and he knows how to make a shot assist the scene. It looks superb. Sadly, cinematography doesn’t save a film.
I watched Exorcist: The Beginning from start to finish. There is much I didn’t mention in this review because it would just take too long to bitch about it all (the crazy guy who kills himself, the horrible, HORRIBLE CGI hyenas…) I can honestly say I hadn’t been entertained. I had been humiliated and felt embarrassed.
I sat back up in my seat as the credits rolled and rubbed my aching temple and thought to myself: Bring on the Schrader DVD. THAT, I gotta see!
Jason Stringer is an Australian writer, filmmaker and the original founder – and former webmaster – of Exorcist fan-site CaptainHowdy.com and the now-defunct horror news source BloodyNews.com.