Exorcist: The Beginning, a frightfully unholy prequel to William Friedkin’s pea soup-vomiting classic, arrives in theaters saddled with a well-documented production horror story to rival its tale of unleashed evil in the African plains. In 2003, Morgan Creek, unhappy with director Paul Schrader’s initial cut, hired super-hack Renny Harlin to re-shoot the entire film with a new cast (save for star Stellan Skarsgård), a new script, and a mandate that it be scarier than Schrader’s apparently fright-lite version. With Schrader’s film currently languishing and unseen on a studio shelf, it’s impossible to judge the wisdom of Morgan Creek’s unprecedented decision—a scheduled DVD release of both renditions will ultimately settle the score. Yet on the basis of Mr. Harlin’s head-spinningly boring and derivative film, even Satan himself would find it difficult to justify this pathetic revisiting of the increasingly tarnished Exorcist legend.
While it never approaches the stratospheric badness of John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic—perhaps the worst follow-up to a stellar film in cinema history—Harlin’s lemon does its damndest to heap more dirt on the franchise’s grave. Written without an ounce of imagination by screenwriter Alexi Hawley, the film recounts the early exploits of Father Merrin, the devil-fighting priest who was given a noble world-weariness by Max von Sydow in the original and is here embodied by a seemingly bored Skarsgård as a surly, disillusioned drunkard. Merrin, a self-described “archeologist” who lost his faith after witnessing Nazi atrocities in WWII, is sent on an artifact-finding mission to Nairobi, where a mystifying church has been unearthed. There, he discovers talk of malevolent spirits, a temple with crosses turned upside down for maximum blasphemy, a sexy doctor (Izabella Scorupco) intrigued by taro cards, and rampant possession (drearily involving children again) plaguing the native population who have been forced to aid the excavation by the racist, imperialist British government.
It’s not long before all hell breaks loose around Father Merrin, not only narratively (expect more ghoulish women and children speaking with gravelly men’s voices) but also cinematically, as Harlin—a director with an abiding interest in flashy, noisy, vacant spectacle—capitalizes on every opportunity to muck up this familiar tale of restored, and restorative, faith. Computer-generated sandstorms, hellish hyenas, and cannibalistic crows are the tools Harlin employs to terrify the audience and, unfortunately, to unsuccessfully compensate for the inevitability of the film’s amateurishly diagrammed script. Merrin likes to drink and denounce God when first introduced, but what the film desperately requires isn’t his devout about-face but, rather, a sign that Merrin—having witnessed man’s potential for monstrousness—might actually be tempted, however slightly, to abandon the light for the dark. As it is, the audience is asked to pay penance for wanting bone-chilling horror by enduring gobbledygook exposition about the land’s bloody Beelzebub history, offensive portraits of tribal Africans as mystical “others,” Merrin’s by-the-books redemption and, alas, one extraordinarily deflating demonic denouement.