Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Exorcist: The Beginning

Nearly a decade and a half between ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and ‘The Exorcist III’. Nearly as long again between ‘Exorcist III’ and ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’.

In 2002 Morgan Creek lined up ‘Exorcist: Dominion’, with John Frankenheimer slated to direct. The script was by William Wisher and Caleb Carr and took as its starting point the throwaway line in ‘The Exorcist’ that Merrin once performed an exorcism in Africa – “something to do with a young boy”. Their script was a mood piece: reflective and sombre. It detailed Merrin’s abandoning of the priesthood after being forced into complicity in a Nazi atrocity in the war; his crisis of faith; and his encounter with ancient evil in a buried church. Liam Neeson was onboard to play the younger Merrin.

Then Frankenheimer fell ill and died shortly afterwards. Paul Schrader stepped into the breach at the eleventh hour. Stellan Skarsgård replaced Neeson. French actress Clara Bellow was cast as Rachel, the doctor Merrin strikes up a friendship – and very nearly a romantic relationship with – at the archaeological site where he comes face to face with his otherworldly nemesis. British character actors par excellence Julian Wadham and Ralph Brown played the Major and Sergeant Major of a British outpost whose colonialist views and heavy-handed presence exacerbate tensions with the indigenous population.

When Schrader tendered his cut of the film, Morgan Creek voiced their unhappiness. They wanted something faster paced; something scarier. They permitted Schrader one preview, denied him sufficient resources to complete special effects work and used the negative audience response to have him ousted. In late 2003 the studio announced that an extra budget was being raised for reshoots. Renny Harlin was on board to direct the additional material.

A few months later, however, the official line was that Schrader’s film was being junked in its entirety and was being entirely reshot, from a reworked screenplay by Alexi Hawley - now entitled ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ – with Harlin directing from scratch. Skarsgård returned, as did Wadham, but Bellow was replaced by former Bond girl Izabella Scorupco.

I’ll be considering Schrader’s version tomorrow. For now, let’s examine Harlin’s film on its own merits. This’ll make for a short paragraph.

The cinematography’s not bad.

Told you it’d be short. Now let’s examine the flaws. Firstly, Hawley’s script strips away all the psychological nuances of Wisher and Carr’s screenplay, reorders certain events and ramps up the melodrama to the nines. The reordering of events particularly damages the film where the flashback to Merrin’s forced involvement in Nazi reprisals is placed late on in the film and followed almost immediately by a clash between British troops and armed tribesman which degenerates into wholesale slaughter, which in turn is superceded by the exorcism itself. In other words, Merrin is shown to have lost his faith as a result of witnessing military brutality, then to regain it after witnessing more of the same.

After a fairly restrained (but still frequently clichéd) first half, Harlin embraces Hawley’s melodramatic contrivances wholeheartedly and throws in a visit to an asylum, a couple of graphic suicides and …


… a ludicrous switcheroo ending revealing that it’s the doctor (here renamed Sarah) who’s been possessed and not the young boy hitherto seen flailing about Regan-like on his bed. Remember that Merrin’s backstory is the exorcism being depicted here (“something to do with a young boy”). Using the possessed boy as a red herring and following up with the exorcism of an adult woman constitutes a discontinuity from the original film which is all the more jarring given that Harlin loots visual tropes and leitmotifs from ‘The Exorcist’ left, right and centre: a pendulum stopping, a statue of Pazuzu, wild dogs snarling, a startled woman holding a candle, a medallion falling, a bed juddering and moving seemingly of its own accord.


The worst is yet to come. Morgan Creek rejected Schrader’s film for not being scary enough: his exorcism scene is at least creepy. Harlin’s is just risible, packed with enough sloppy stunts and dodgy CGI to make the average episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ look like an exercise in documentary realism.

It would be a cheap jibe to round off this post by saying that ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ sucks cocks in hell. But that’s pretty much all it deserves.

‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ – production timeline on

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