DEVIL IS GOING ON HERE?
By MANOHLA DARGIS
The New York Times, 8/21/04
heads, cascades of pea soup and your mother's Army boots are nowhere
to be found in "Exorcist: The Beginning," but lovers of
the ridiculous may be delighted to know that the specter of little
Linda Blair a-twitch and a-tremble is not entirely forgotten. A
prequel to "The Exorcist," William Friedkin's 1973 shocker
in which Ms. Blair played a child hijacked by Beelzebub, this new
film comes gussied up with some fine talent and its very own bag
of cheap tricks. But when push comes to demonic shove, hell apparently
hath no fury like a woman in green pancake makeup just as surely
as some producers have no shame.
"Exorcist: The Beginning," which opened nationwide yesterday
and given its doleful prospects may soon be known as "Exorcist:
The End," is the third feature film to be squeezed from the
pulpy remains of Mr. Friedkin's original. (That film spawned two
less-acclaimed sequels, and four years ago it was re-released in
theaters with some padding and tweaks.) Based on the William Peter
Blatty best seller, the first "Exorcist" mostly entails
the efforts of two priests trying to beat the devil out of Ms. Blair's
12-year-old with the aid of pop metaphysics and some exceedingly
dated special effects. A monster hit and very effective for a certain
teenager who must remain nameless, Mr. Friedkin's film has not held
up well, but compared with this latest effort does vaguely resemble
the classic of 1970's cinema its fans tout it as.
"Exorcist: The Beginning" was directed by Renny Harlin,
whose previous efforts include a solid "Nightmare on Elm Street"
sequel, a bad "Die Hard" sequel and the diverting thriller
"The Long Kiss Goodnight." Slick and devoid of any obvious
personal signature, Mr. Harlin's directorial style is serviceable
enough for a movie like "Exorcist: The Beginning," which
exists solely to rake in cash during its opening weekend and settle
into a long shelf-life in the DVD hereafter.
As it happens, the DVD release will be more interesting than the
theatrical one if, as floated in Variety, it includes the version
of this prequel shot by the director Paul Schrader. Mr. Schrader
was fired from the project on grounds that his prequel was not scary.
Mr. Schrader, in turn, had replaced the film's initial director,
John Frankenheimer, who died during preproduction.
All this background noise, alas, turns out to be more interesting
than what has managed to finally make it on to the screen. Written
by Alexi Hawley, who was brought in to revamp William Wisher and
Caleb Carr's earlier screenplay, "Exorcist: The Beginning"
opens centuries ago with a priest stumbling through a landscape
littered with bloodied corpses and the writhing bodies of the soon
to be dead. From there it's a fast cut to Cairo circa 1949, where
amid the putatively exotic third-world sights and sounds the Swedish
actor Stellan Skarsgard sits in a bar wearing the rumpled white
suit and anomie of a B-movie hero. This world-weary traveler is,
of course, Merrin, the same character played by the Swedish actor
Max von Sydow in "The Exorcist," but now without the sanctity
of the priestly collar.
What ensues essentially conforms to the movie horror manual, though
the production does benefit from the talents of the Italian cinematographer
Vittorio Storaro, who has given the film a nice nicotine-stain patina.
Wrapped in this burnished orange glow, Merrin, having taken a mysterious
assignment, creases his brow and tries to discover what a Catholic
church is doing buried in the sand in northern Kenya (actually Italy's
Cinecittà Studios), which is where most of the film's 117
draggy minutes play out. Along for the ride are the usual movie
suspects, including a beautiful doctor with peek-a-boo décolletage
and a fondness for late-night showering (Izabella Scorupco), a young
priest straight from the Vatican (James D'Arcy), a helpful local
with a bull's-eye fixed to his forehead (Andrew French) and various
other sacrificial lambs, including children, all of whom are lovingly
skewered with graphic detail.
Despite the body count and Mr. Harlin's reliance on shock cuts and
loud noises, "Exorcist: The Beginning" singularly fails
to deliver any palpable shivers. Perhaps more expectedly, given
the torturous production history and the unceremonious introduction
of the movie (the studio didn't screen the film for critics until
the night before it opened), it does afford the occasional and presumably
unintended laugh. Still, despite the risible dialogue, the bulging
eyeballs, the heaving bosoms, the digitally rendered hyenas and
squirming maggots, the movie fails to achieve the status of the
instant camp classic. That's partly because the vibe of the film
is too torpid. It simply doesn't have the buoyancy of camp, but
mostly because it's deeply unpleasant to watch children, even fictional
children, murdered on the altar of greed. Thrills rarely get cheaper
or more loathsome.
''Exorcist: The Beginning" is rated
R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for
graphic bloody violence, including images of young children being
shot and torn apart by animals.