Any movie bold enough to have a title like “Exorcist: The Beginning,” has a whole lot of hype to live up to. As far as terrifying movies go, the bar has been raised pretty high. Then again, maybe we’ve come to expect crappy sequels from classic scary films. Just look at “Jaws 3-D.”
“Exorcist:The Beginning,” of course, has the daunting task of giving us the backstory of Father Lankester Merrin, played originally by Max Van Sydow in arguably the best horror film ever made, 1973’s “The Exorcist.”
Haunted by the atrocities he has witnessed in World War II, Merrin (now played by Stellan Skarsgard) travels to Kenya in 1949 to lead an expediton uncovering the remains of a mysterious church. The local villagers speak of a curse and many excavation workers are inexpliciably stricken.
This movie was directed by Renny Harlin (“Cliffhanger,” “Deep Blue Sea”), who took over the production after Paul Schrader (“Auto Focus,” Afliction”) was fired by the studio. Schrader had completed the film, but Morgan Creek decided it wasn’t scary or gory enough, and hired Harlin to re-shoot ninety percent of the film with a slightly different cast. Schrader’s version, which is rumored to be coming out on DVD together with this version’s release, was supposedly too talky and psychological. It won’t be awhile then, until we are able to be the judge of that.
But Harlin’s film has arrived first, and while it’s fairly gory, there’s really nothing there but a couple of cheap “boo” scares and lots of nods and winks to the original.
Merrin’s faith is tested, much like Father Karras in the original “Exorcist,” but the audience’s faith isn’t even considered. “The Exorcist” is a movie that shakes you to your core and makes you ponder the role of religion in the modern world. “Exorcist: The Beginning,” on the other hand, is a movie that unfolds with all the urgency of a History Channel production.
Sometimes the History Channel can be fascinating. Harlin gives us the legend of the remote Turkana region in straightforward fashion, complete with two violent battle aftermaths, a romantic interest, and a bit of the old bait-and-switch. What he never accomplishes, though, is any sense of dread or terror. And, no, bats flying into the frame unexpectedly with an extremely loud and sudden sound effect DON’T count.
Taken as a prequel, or a set-up for “The Exorcist,” the movie works fairly well. It’s like a road map that hits all the familiar landmarks and drops you off at your predestined arrival date. Harlin has thrown in numerous winks to the original, including a line spoken by Von Sydow that is now spoken by Skarsgard, a visit to an insane asylum, and even a shot of the recurring face from 2000’s re-release “The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen.” These all add to the feeling that you are seeing an authentic “Exorcist” product.
Which is exactly what “Exorcist:The Beginning” is. A product.
The dogs fighting each other in Iraq as Merrin makes his discovery in the original are now CGI devil hounds. The gore is ratcheted up for modern horror audiences’ tastes, but it doesn’t add to any sort of lingering mood. One scene in particular involving the violent death of a child is just plain needless and disgusting.
Skarsgard is the best thing about the movie. He gives us a conflicted, believable Merrin, and a reason to follow the predictable storyline to its conclusion. It is nice to have the knowledge of what happened to Merrin, pre-”Exorcist.” It should have been a simple appendix, if you will. But, as a movie, “Exorcist: The Beginning” simply doesn’t dig deep enough to really matter in any other way.