You've all heard the stories about how Paul Schrader made "Exorcist: The Beginning," submitted the film for approval and was then fired because it was too psychological and not gory enough. So, instead of cutting their losses and releasing the movie as is, Warner Brothers decided to waste more money (on a prequel that was destined to fail no matter how good) by rewriting and re-shooting 90% of the film with a different director. Who did they hire? Why, none other than Renny Harlin, the genius behind such films as "Driven," "Cutthroat Island" and "The Long Kiss Goodnight." It all makes perfect sense.
While I continue to hold out hope that at some point I will be able to see Schrader's version of this "Exorcist" prequel, Warner Brothers unfortunately decided not to go ahead with their original plan to release both versions simultaneously on DVD, which would have been great for comparison reasons. Of course, they probably want to hide the fact that Schrader's version is better than the theatrical release. After all, redoing a movie just to be gorier and more action-packed is just plain stupid. Regardless of what Hollywood thinks, audiences are not as dumb as they appear; they can enjoy deep films, and oftentimes psychological horror movies are the scariest of all. On the other hand, Schrader's version could have just been really bad...
Anyway, the current version of "Exorcist: The Beginning" is what you would expect, a cheap rip-off of countless religious horror movies before it without anything new to offer. Surprisingly, the film is fairly entertaining and moves along at a brisk pace, thanks to a good performance by Stellan Skarsgard, who for some reason needed the money so bad he was willing to do two entirely different versions of the same story. The plot, which takes a look at the early days of Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow in the original, who was ironically ten years younger than Skarsgard is in this prequel) as he uncovers the devil in Africa, is actually pretty good. "The Beginning" is much broader than the original "Exorcist" as it encompasses everything from the horrors of Nazi Germany to the manipulation of the devil between western troops and local Africans. Of course, the intriguing concept unfortunately gives way to nothing more than popcorn conventions as Harlin, who undoubtedly was working under close supervision of the Warner Brothers executives, drew cliché elements from just above every supernatural thriller out there.
"The Beginning" is mildly creepy and Harlin appears to know how to scare audiences, but at the same time seems to have forgotten that audiences actually interested in his long-delayed picture are probably the same audiences who have gone to see countless other movies of a similar nature. Most of the movie is filled with scary voices, shaking beds and bleeding walls - things we've all seen before.
Worst, however, are the special effects, which look like something out of a cheesy straight-to-video monster movie. From pathetic-looking hyenas (they were hyenas, right?) to a poorly animated Izabella Scorupco, the effects really ruin what could have been some of the creepier parts of the movie.
Of course, what really destroys the film is the ending. Up until the last twenty minutes, I was mildly impressed with "The Beginning." It wasn't an original film, nor did it compare in the slightest to "The Exorcist," but it was entertaining and had a creepy atmosphere about it. But then the ending ruins it. Only now does any kind of exorcism take place (how come it took Merrin an entire movie to exorcise the devil in the original film and somehow here it only takes him a few minutes, without any prior experience no less?), but by this point we don't care. The special effects are the worst here, especially in a scene where Scorupco flails her arms as she runs down a tunnel. Most unconvincing is the possessed person, who simply pales in comparison to Linda Blair in the original. In that film, we got to see her slowly digress into a more demonic state, where here the possessed becomes "evil" instantly and without any real explanation. Whereas Linda Blair was creepy, the possessed person here is just laughable. Not a good way to end the movie...
"Exorcist: The Beginning" does establish a creepy setting and features yet another solid performance from Stellan Skarsgard, but the movie is so cliché and inundated with terrible special effects it is hard to take completely seriously. Besides, what is Hollywood's obsession with trying to remake or create sequels to classics? If you can't or shouldn't top the original, why bother?
The DVD proves the lack of confidence in the title. Aside from the fact the other version of the movie isn't included in the package as originally planned, Warner Brothers has taken care to not make reference to the fact that this was a disaster in the making. There's an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that provides only twenty seconds of interesting material, and it sure as heck is careful not to mention Schrader's version. There's also a director's commentary. Harlin is pretty informative and detailed and provides some interesting insight into the movie, but he too is obviously under strict orders not to allude to the fact that there is another version of his movie out there. He's also not the most dynamic of speakers, but for those interested in the more technical side of things he is pretty good, especially when he explains how he got around budget constraints. Unfortunately, the DVD is so bare it should be fined by the FCC, and the quality of the movie definitely doesn't make this a worthwhile purchase.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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