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Exorcist: The Beginning

With two forgettable sequels already skulking about the video store shelves like hunchbacked wallflowers, 1973's brilliant horror drama The Exorcist seemed unlikely to spawn any progeny worthy of its name. But when Warner Brothers announced that mercurial Paul Schrader — whose filmography of introverted rage, explosive violence, and spiritual suffocation includes Light Sleeper, Mishima, and Auto Focus, and screenplays for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, among others — had been hired to write and direct a prequel to William Friedkin's acclaimed classic, it appeared that the studio had finally understood that the original movie's longevity laid not with its special effects, but in the intimacy with which it explored novelist William Peter Blatty's gripping tale of the struggle between supernatural forces of good and evil. However, when Schrader turned in his version of this fourth film in the Exorcist series, he was swiftly fired and replaced by obtuse action hack Renny Harlin, who was granted license to rewrite and re-shoot the movie (at nearly twice Schrader's budget!). Rumors that Schrader's film was too psychological and lacked sufficient gore will have to wait for validation when that version premieres at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (billed as Exorcist: The Original Prequel) just a few weeks after this 2005 DVD release of Harlin's effort. Whatever the flaws or promise of Schrader's Exorcist prequel, Harlin's is simply atrocious (and bombed accordingly). Despite the inspired casting of excellent Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård as young Lancaster Merrin (the character indelibly played by the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow in the original film), Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) is plagued throughout by Z-movie writing (by first-time scribe Alexi Hawley) and Harlin's visual artificiality. Shortly after the end of World War II, Merrin suffers a crisis of faith triggered by his first-hand experience of the horrors of Nazism and leaves the priesthood for archeology. When an ancient church is unearthed in Nairobi, Merrin is called to investigate and finds the site plagued by mysterious illnesses. With the uninspired Harlin (best known for 1993's workman-like Cliffhanger and his notorious 1995 pirate bomb Cutthroat Island) at the helm, what follows is an ordinary supernatural mystery with non-conducive cardboard characters squelching the tension. Pussywhipped by trite visual cues, Harlin is incapable of delivering anything near the resonance of Friedkin's masterful, tactile, and quietly unsettling character study. Merrin's internal struggle is relegated to furtive glances and dull expositional dialogue, and the horror of pure evil is reduced to crass shock effects (a couple of good ones) and pouncing music cues. Exorcist: The Beginning is so lifeless and its "scares" so obligatory, that it even fails to rise to the absurd entertainment value of John Boorman's ridiculously inept 1978 Exorcist II: The Heretic, which may now no longer be considered the franchise's biggest disaster. Warning to the curious: Enduring Harlin's clumsy, artless, and manipulative depiction of Nazism may make one feel dirtier than description can bear. Warner presents Exorcist: The Beginning in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in DTS. This disc includes a dry commentary by Harlin (in which he promises to discuss the movie's rough production history, but never comes back to it) and an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. Trailers, keep case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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