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The Beginning

When you hear those Tubular Bells, you know that evil lurks in the shadows. The skin on the back of your neck starts tingling, and you say a quick prayer of thanks that you skipped the split pea soup for lunch. But neither that sensation nor the bells carry over to Exorcist: The Beginning, the fourth film in a franchise that you may have completely forgotten was a franchise, even though the trailer worked very hard to remind you.

Actually, Renny Harlin's directorial job marks the fourth and a half film. Writer/director Paul Schrader took a whack at it first, but Warner Brothers turned it down for reasons of commercial viability. Then they hired Harlin to use the same plot elements and reshoot the entire thing with that special Harlin touch, which means bigger, louder and wherever possible, just a skosh incoherent.

They certainly got it. But it's tacked on to a story idea that seems much more meditative. Thus, the film frays at the edges, tugging between the question of man's own capacity for evil and the efforts of the devil himself, so that we can have vomit, guts and things blowing up good.

Technically, it's not the devil himself. Though the film never mentions it by name, the stone idols that dot a sunken cathedral are of a demon called Pazuzu, a factoid revealed in Exorcist II: We Should Have Just Let It Stand At One. So the screenwriters (credited to Alexi Hawley, from a story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr) are stuck with little bits of trivia from the earlier films while still accommodating what people think they know about the franchise.

As a result, the baby-faced Father Francis (James D'arcy) spends a lot of time talking about Lucifer, when really it's one of his underlings making all the natives restless. He makes the audience restless, too, by having possessed Harlin to poorly imitate Schrader's work without having a sense of why.

Wasting cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Harlin plays around with monochromatic shots whenever possible. They come off as cheap shots. Bathing Izabella Scorupco in sickly green lighting serves to force the audience to feel suspense without knowing why, and it fails to pay off. Long segments roll by in khaki, with even Scorupco and Stellan Skarsgard fading into the scenery. Harlin also has a strange fixation with close-ups, cut badly, which causes them to lose their impact as a story-telling device. More likely, he's covering up a lack of chemistry between Scorupco and Skarsgard. It all ends up just looking drab instead of, perhaps, thoughtful and reflective.

The pieces are there. Set just a couple of years after World War II, the film recasts Father Lancaster Merrin (Skarsgard, in the role originated by Max Von Sydow) as Indiana Jones, but without any of the excitement. His faith tested and destroyed by the Nazi occupation, Merrin has defrocked himself, boozing it up and claiming a vague role as an archaeologist. The mysterious Semelier (Ben Cross) enlists him to join a dig in Kenya in order to retrieve an artifact, a totem of the demon we know as Pazuzu.

While Merrin suffers flashbacks to the terrible moment when he lost his faith, he struggles to find out just why this Kenyan dig has the natives so spooked. Well, he doesn't so much struggle as stumble into his answers, with lots of little portents that nobody seems willing to put into the big picture. Even Father Francis' disturbing problem of having his crucifix turn itself upside down never warrants a mention to anyone else.

Sure, Pazuzu lurks on the edges, dropping signs and wonders, mostly bloody, without ever once doing something in a floral arrangement so that reviewers could make a joke about Pazuzu's petals. Such are demons.

In the last third of the film, Harlin finally finds his footing and gets things raring, but it's too little, too late. A long-promised slaughter occurs, but shot through smoke and darkness, so there's not enough coherent action to satisfy those who want it. Script-wise, though Pazuzu's revelation perks up interest, it's also clear that a character spent a lot of time in torment for no other reason than to throw us off the trail of what was supposedly going on. Hand in hand with that pointless torment is the fact that several characters could have pointed out something pretty major to Merrin, but chose not to for no reason other than it would wreck the reveal. That annoyance almost completely outweighs the pleasure of seeing an old-fashioned demonic throwdown.

At least in that throwdown, Skarsgard betrays an emotion besides vague annoyance at having had to film the movie twice. Harlin has proven himself a muscular director in films that don't have much emotional weight, and so maybe the actors simply didn't get direction. There's no through-line here, no arc, and no sense of how shattering it must be for someone who's lost his faith to rediscover it because of an exposure to ultimate evil. Merrin is just as grim at the end as he is in the beginning, but more likely sober.

So, too, will audiences be.

Note: Schrader's version still exists, and will be released on home video either as part of a 2-disc set with Harlin's film, or as an alternative. Truly, I am fascinated to see it.


Derek McCaw

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