Horror review: Exorcist–The Beginning

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, AUG. 26, 2004

Few horror franchises have failed as miserably as that of The Exorcist. Sure, William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s shocking occult novel was a masterwork of terror. Everybody knows that. But John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (’77) and Blatty’s own The Exorcist III (’90) are widely reviled turkeys. No wonder the backers of this latest Exorcist entry decided to have a go at a prequel rather than risk another sequel. Not that it made any difference. The series tally now sits at one for four.

Stellan Skarsgard stars as disillusioned Father Lankester Merrin, a younger version of the priest Max von Sydow made famous in The Exorcist. In 1949, while pounding back whisky shots in a Cairo dive, he’s approached by an agent for a collector of antiquities who offers him big bucks to join an archaeological dig in Kenya and try to recover an ancient artifact. Merrin takes the assignment and is soon staring aghast at upside-down crucifixes in a partially unearthed Byzantine church that was built in the fifth century, then apparently buried in pristine condition.

An Oxford-educated archaeologist, Merrin delves into the mysterious origins of the structure, but his thoughts are constantly disrupted by flashbacks of the day when, as a priest in a German-occupied Dutch town, he was forced to choose parishioners to be executed by a vengeful Nazi officer. “God is not here today, priest,” declares the sadistic scumball, before shooting children in the head.

Working Nazis into the satanic brew certainly ups the evil ante, but it doesn’t help make Exorcist: The Beginning a worthwhile movie. With Deep Blue Sea director Renny Harlin at the helm, it’s a convoluted mess of shocking images and not much else. A screaming boy is ripped apart by demonic hyenas, a baby is born dead and covered with maggots, a strung-up corpse has an eye plucked out by a raven.

The formulaic horror hodgepodge borrows from films likeThe Omen (when Merrin is threatened by hyenas while digging in a graveyard at night) and even ’80s slasher flicks (when a beautiful doctor roams around in the dark, clutching nothing but a scalpel and a wet towel). The filmmakers blatantly rip off the original Exorcistwhen a woman made up just like Linda Blair in full-on possessed mode bares her chest and shrieks in a demonic male voice: “What’s wrong, Merrin? Don’t you want to fuck me anymore?”

The climactic battle between good and evil was so silly and overdone that, when a cellphone rang four times in the row behind me, I welcomed the distraction.

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