Exorcist: The Beginning (R) ½

Review Date: August 20th, 2004

Exorcist: The Beginning starts off promisingly with some impressive visuals and a potentially intriguing story, but it falls apart after the first scene. By desperately trying to be scary, it becomes a laughable mess.


While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II, Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross), a collector of rare antiquities, to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya, where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish), the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1,000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there, Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco), who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy, Joseph (Remy Sweeney), shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity, including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like, maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.


Poor Skarsgard. To his credit, the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character, Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude, a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching), Merrin is practically transformed into sexy, religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. ''If everyone died, who buried them?'' Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire), meanwhile, doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah, a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist, however, pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch), who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.


The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening, set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end, as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting, the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader, who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer, who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly, there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience, like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario, that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too, including his inane, man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier, though, is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained, which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script, credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley, is so vague it's irritating.

Bottom Line

Despite a promising start, Exorcist: The Beginning crumbles into a hilarious mess of a story with deplorable dialogue. Think Scare Tactics meets the world of bad, bad CGI.