THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
Directed by Renny Harlin
“It’s a good B devil movie masquerading as top shelf goods.”
Honestly, I’m not a fan of prequels. I’d wager that 98% of the time they’re unnecessary. Even worse, they’re anti-climactic because usually we know how things will end up. Think STAR WARS. Problems and bitches aside about the quality, in the end there’s no suspense because we already know who lives, who dies, and who ends up with who. That being said sometimes a prequel can serve a purpose. Either there is more story to tell (like BATMAN BEGINS or GODFATHER PART II) or a franchise needs to keep moving (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS). In the case of EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, it’s a mixture of both.
I seriously doubt a lot of folks were clamoring for another EXORCIST flick especially considering the last one had been 1990’s EXORCIST III, but if Hollywood can squeeze a few more bucks outta something, why not. It’s a property with a solid name, so of course we’ll see more of it.
In the case of EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, it’s been well documented that it had an interesting production to say the least. I won’t dive deep into the behind the scenes drama, but as a recap veteran writer Paul Schrader (TAXI DRIVER) directed a more psychological version of this movie, only to have the studio pass on it because it lacked blood and gore. They rebooted the reboot with the rarely hit and mostly miss director Renny Harlin (DIE HARD 2) using the same lead actor in Stellan Skarsgard. Schrader’s very on the nose titled version (DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST) is another column entirely even if both versions have the same basic plot.
So you remember that old guy Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) from the first EXORCIST? Here he’s a younger man (Skarsgard) in East Africa working as an archeologist after losing his faith in WWII to find out what’s in a church that’s been found buried beneath a shit ton of sand. Along with him is another preacher, Father Francis, whose job is to make sure Merrin doesn’t do anything too nutty, and an attractive doctor who has her own post-WWII issues. Things get bad quickly as the atmosphere gets all evil and demony (of course people get possessed by something bad). We find that the church was built where human sacrifices once occurred and that perhaps the same spot where Lucifer himself might have landed when he got the big boot from heaven.
It should be pretty obvious that EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING isn’t in the same solar system as the original work, but I still found the thing entertaining enough. I like the mystery, the unfolding of trying to discover where a demon comes from. While this is far from A quality work, it’s a good B devil movie masquerading as top shelf goods. Thankfully, Harlin kept Skarsgard around because the man delivers. He does his best to give layers to the character even when everything around the guy is just bloody dire. Merrin’s flashbacks to WWII where a Nazi asshole forces him to choose those who would die is as painful and gut-wrenching as any scene. It makes the character more believable and we understand his reservations about the whole religion thing.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING is a good example of shitty CGI that ruins potential potential. Those wolves are just sad; whenever they appear or Harlin uses CGI, it’s just pulls me straight out of the movie. Overuse of CGI is bad enough today, but 10 years ago the technology wasn’t there yet. Then there are the obvious sets that look like a simple case of cost cutting however and whenever Harlin could, though he did have a $50 million budget even after Schrader spent $30 million on his own cut. The worst scene comes when Merrin digs up the graveyard looking for bodies. It looks like it was shot in a high school gym.
What Harlin did accomplish correctly was adding gallons of fresh and dried blood, lots of flies and maggots, a level of brutality (when the voodoo-type people attempt to kill the sick child is a rough one) and a satisfying helping of gore (that axe to the head stands out during the blood soaked finale). EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING stinks of sweat and decay, making the audience as uncomfortable and in need of a shower as the characters. And that’s a hell of a thing to accomplish alone.