Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Stellan Skarsgard, James D'arcy, Elizabeth Scorupo, Remy Sweeny
Written by: William Wisher, Caleb Carr, Alexi Hawley
Directed by: Renny Harlin
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and gore, disturbing images and rituals, and for language including some sexual dialogue
Running Time: 113
Date: 08/18/2004
IMDB

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Repossessed Again

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This poor series has gone through nothing but trouble. According to the author of the original book, William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist (1973) was plagued by strange occurrences. The sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) suffered the most horrendous opening in history, and was recalled and re-edited with little success. The third film, Exorcist III, directed by Blatty, went virtually ignored. And now the fourth film has the strangest history of all.

Warner Brothers originally commissioned Paul Schrader to direct the film -- a wise move, considering that Schrader is one of the best and gutsiest filmmakers around. He's not only made blistering dramas like Blue Collar and Affliction, but he's also experienced at horror films like Cat People (1982).

According to various reports, Schrader finished his film and turned it in. Warner Brothers complained that it was not scary enough and demanded that Schrader do re-shoots. When Schrader refused, they reshot the film with Renny Harlin (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Driven) -- not the greatest director around´┐Żat the helm. And this is the version that Warner Brothers has decided to release in theaters -- even though they didn't like it enough to screen it for the press. (They screened it on a Thursday night, after most deadlines had past.)

Schrader's version still exists, and reports indicate that Warner Brothers will release it later this year on a double-disc DVD set alongside Harlin's version. I have my guess as to which one will be better.

Harlin's version plays not unlike Exorcist II. It's a huge mess with passages of great beauty, juxtaposed with a few truly scary moments and a bunch of hokum and stupidity.

Stellan Skarsgard stars as a younger version of Father Merrin, the older exorcist played by Max Von Sydow in the 1973 film. Having survived WWII and seen his share of horrors at the hands of the Nazis, Merrin has given up the cloak and become a hard-drinking archeologist. He's hired to travel to Kenya, where an old church has been discovered, to bring back an artifact reported to be inside.

When he gets there, he discovers that things are not as they should be. There's a big upside-down cross and the church has been purposely buried. Plus, all kinds of weird things start happening, such as a still-born baby covered with maggots or a previous archeologist gone stark raving mad.

Photographed by the extraordinary Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now), the film looks amazing, bathed in sandy golds and shimmering heat. Skarsgard helps with his measured performance of a tormented, brooding, intelligent man. The early passages of quiet detective work and hushed conversations work the best.

Then the film goes on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, mixing brilliantly scary scenes and utterly brain-dead ones. In one silly scene, Merrin wonders about the origin of a series of graves and begins digging them up -- at night. He also digs a perfect rectangle in the dirt before he strikes the coffin lid.

Even William Friedkin's original Exorcist isn't really as great as everyone imagines it to be. It's a bit quieter and slower than many films today, and it seems more intelligent, but it's really just a more exaggerated version of a standard gore-fest. In that light, Exorcist: The Beginning doesn't stray too far from the quality of the previous three films. In other words, it doesn't disappoint.

Not unless, like me, you were looking forward to the Schrader version.

DVD Details: I haven't personally viewed Warner Home Video's new DVD, but I was informed that it would not contain the Paul Schrader version. This disc reportedly does not even mention the Schrader version in any form.