Review: Exorcist: The Beginning
By Erik Kristopher Myers
[Review originally published on BloodyNews.com in 2004]
Renny, my boy, I’ve got to admit: for a minute there, you almost had me fooled.
Yeah, it’s true: we Exorcist fans nearly puked up our pea soup when we heard that Paul Schrader – the original director of Exorcist: The Beginning – had been fired from his own film; and that you, Renny Harlin, who have been responsible for cinematic travesties like Cutthroat Island and Deep Blue Sea, were replacing him. It was like, “Yeah, there’s a good idea: replace a respected auteur like Schrader with a guy who killed his own wife’s career by casting her in films nobody wanted to watch.”
I have to admit that I softened a bit when I had the chance to read the unpublished novelization of Schrader’s film. It was long, it was boring, and it was a chore to get through, let alone review; and when I started reading your interviews last month, I began to wonder: “Was Morgan Creek right? Did they make the correct decision in hiring you?” I lost considerable animosity as I read you profess your love for William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece, The Exorcist; and as I delved deeper and deeper into the philosophies of your prequel, I began to question my initial doubt. “He might actually make a good film,” I thought, “one worthy of the franchise.” Hey: even I make mistakes once in a while.
And then there was that trailer. No, not the teaser, the one that consisted almost entirely of footage from the original Exorcist, but the full-on, hold-no-punches, honest to goodness two-minute preview. Yeah, it too reused quite a few visuals and sounds from the first film, but man, it got my hopes up. Did I expect art? Nah. Given the track record of this series, I figured there’s no way I’m ever going to get another film that impacted me the way that first flick did, that had me so scared that at the age of twelve I was sleeping at the foot of my sister’s bed for two weeks. At this point, I’ll settle for inoffensive entertainment.
I picked up the second novelization, Mr. Harlin, the one for your film, and I read it the week before Exorcist: The Beginning was released in theatres. My girlfriend, a relative newbie to the series (and an avid supporter of Exorcist II: The Heretic, by the way), asked me how it was. Did it improve upon Schrader’s version? Was it scary? I told her that yes, it was, if nothing else, more entertaining than the shelved film had been (at least in novelization form); but that certain things ran the risk of looking really stupid onscreen. I mentioned the exorcism in particular.
(And no, readers, that wasn’t a spoiler, so quit your bitching. This is a Morgan Creek film, after all; and we all know Morgan Creek films end up with an exorcism whether the screenplay called for one or not. Ask that Blatty guy. He’s always happy to talk about it.)
Anyway, Mr. Harlin, I hate to admit it, but those things I said “might look stupid” look even stupider than I’d expected. Like really, really stupid. In fact, you made the worst Exorcist film of the series; and after the painful double-penetration of The Heretic and Legion, that’s really saying something.
Like I said before, you almost had me fooled. In fact, the first half hour ain’t that bad. We meet young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), a defrocked priest who is working on an archaeological dig in Kenya. It seems a Byzantine church has been discovered, buried upon completion, and sleeping within is – a giant crock of shit!
Yeah, it all kind of goes downhill once we skip the character crap and get to the meat of the story, which isn’t all that meaty, anyway. We get plenty of cheesy subliminal flashes, swooping CG aerial shots straight out of Final Fantasy, and more inverted crosses than Omen IV: The Awakening (and believe me, that’s saying quite a bit). Something disgusting happens every five minutes, whether it’s exploding boils or lunatics slicing their own throats; but for all of the gross-out moments, there’s never anything scary. Not even close. Hell, the gross-out moments aren’t even original, for crying out loud.
I know, I know, this is pretty rough, Mr. Harlin. I’m not exactly being charitable, am I? Well, let’s talk about some good things. Let’s talk about the way you managed to steal shots from Friedkin’s original. What’s that? You say it was homage? Well, maybe that’s how it was intended. Maybe it even seemed that way to me the first few times; but after a while, I began to wonder whether you were trying to create symmetry or if you were just creatively bankrupt. Yeah, seeing Merrin in the loony bin, surrounded by nutsos doing shot-for-shot impersonations of the similarly disturbed patients seen at Bellevue in The Exorcist was pretty cool – if it hadn’t followed an endless succession of stopped clocks, Captain Howdy faces, metal workers hammering up showers of sparks, one-eyed natives, and a legion (pardon the pun) of other very familiar images. We also are treated to the origin of both the Pazuzu amulet and St. Joseph’s medallion first uncovered by Merrin in the first film; but while both pieces of jewelry are given substantial build-up, neither one amounts to anything. Whatever happened to the medallion, Renny? It just kind of vanished halfway through the movie, along with whatever grace the film had going for it.
That dreaded middle section. You know, the character of Sarah Novak (Izabella Scorupco) might have sounded good on paper, but she’s absolutely useless onscreen. Every time she showed up, it was time for another jump moment or Big Scary Dream Sequence, typically involving such horrors as – the menstrual cycle! The most frightening thing that happens to this character is that she has a Kotex Moment and leaves a trail of blood on the floor. We’re told this is impossible, as she’s been “fixed” by lecherous Nazis during her days as a prisoner in a Polish slave camp; but come on, Renny: what the hell is the bloody mess on the floor supposed to mean? What does it symbolize? Or are you just confusing gross for scary again?
Speaking of scary, let’s talk about the CGI. Now, I realize you weren’t permitted to film in Morocco like Schrader did, and that most of your environments had to be created artificially, but some of the bluescreen work makes Xena: Warrior Princess look like fucking Lord of the Rings. There were many cringe-inducing moments along the way; but the final shot of the film is inexcusable. In fact, it’s probably the worst digital compositing I’ve seen in a major motion picture. Ever.
Then there’s the exorcism. There are no words to describe how awful this sequence is. I could write an entire review of the last twenty minutes and burn up ten pages in the process; but for the sake of brevity, I’ll say this: it’s the worst exorcism ever put to film. Period. The Demon Murder Case was more effective than this; and if you want to know the truth, the Possessed looks (and acts) an awful lot like Linda Blair – in Repossessed. The voice of the demon is also unintentionally amusing, sounding less like a hellish apparition and more like a mulleted, two hundred and fifty pound New Jersey waitress, chain-smoking between shifts behind the dumpster at Denny’s. I laughed, Renny. So did the rest of the audience. Were we supposed to?
Yeah, I skipped a lot, I realize. I didn’t mention the hyenas (almost as bad as the dog-creatures in The Chronicles of Riddick), or the character of Father Francis (James D’Arcy), who appears once every half hour to explain the plot. If I’m missing anything, it isn’t that I forgot: it’s just that I already wasted two hours watching this goddam thing, so the last thing I want to do is waste another two minutes writing about it.
It’s worth mentioning that I saw this at a press screening, and less than half the critics showed up. I was wearing an Exorcist: The Beginning t-shirt given to me as a promotional item; and when the lights went up after that miserable final shot, I became acutely aware that I was wearing the title of this movie on my chest, a walking advertisement (and an unpaid one, at that). This won’t happen again.
You almost pulled the wool over my eyes, Mr. Harlin. Your intentions were good, but your film was not!
Erik Kristopher Myers is the award-winning writer/director of indie films Roulette (2013) and Butterfly Kisses (2017). His writings have been featured in such publications as The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film, and he is currently penning a book on the making of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III.