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EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Stellan Skarsgard, Izabella Scorupco, James D'Arcy
Director:  Renny Harlin
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  113 Minutes
Release Date:  March 1, 2005

"Sometimes I think the best view of God is from Hell."

Film *1/2

Exorcist: The Beginning is probably the best of the sequels to the classic original, but that says far more about the state of wretchedness the franchise had fallen into than it does about this movie itself.  Different directors have tried their hands at keeping the haunting original tale afloat, including the book's author William Peter Blatty...but all have come short of the glory. 

Paul Schrader was originally slated to make the film, but his version was shelved by the studio.  Renny Harlin, most known for his energetic, mindless but usually fun action flicks, seemed an odd choice to pick up the already soiled mantel, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The latest entry boasted the most promising premise of the sequels in choosing to go back and tell the story of Father Merrin's first encounter with the embodiment of evil.  The fact that one of our best film actors working today Stellan Skarsgard was going to tackle the role added to the interest.

But Harlin adds his name to the list of filmmakers who couldn't resurrect William Friedkin's unique and groundbreaking approach to horror, and instead spins a yarn of mostly gore and cliche around what might have been an intriguing premise of a priest who loses and then regains his faith.

I knew I was in trouble when Merrin (Skarsgard) first gets invited to a dig uncovering a Christian church that was built around 5 AD.  Didn't anybody bother to do the math and figure out there were no Christian churches built when Jesus was four years old?  But it raises no flag with our Catholic characters, who aren't even impressed that the church bore a crucifix some 30 years before the death of Christ.

When Merrin arrives at the site, he finds all is not well.  The natives are afraid of the place.  The interior has been desecrated.  The original archaeologist has gone inexplicably mad, and now a strange condition has fallen over one of the native children.  Merrin, who had left the church some years prior, seeks medical or scientific solutions to the happenings, while his priest companion (D'Arcy) believes they have awakened an ancient evil.

If you're one who doesn't like to see children in peril, you should probably avoid this movie.  In it, we see a little girl shot in the head at point blank range, a young boy being subjected to leeches in a human sacrifice ritual, and another boy being torn to pieces by some very badly rendered CGI hyenas. 

Merrin's role, which was so pivotal in the first film, is rendered mostly thankless here, despite the solid presence of Skarsgard.  His best moment, and probably the most haunting in the entire movie, is a flashback explaining how he lost his faith when a Nazi officer had gathered a crowd of Jewish prisoners around and forced him to pick which ten will be shot, otherwise they all would have been. 

But other moments are downright embarrassing for the actor, including one of the worst lines in recent memory...after a priest explains about an evil that possessed a group of nuns and made them behave in profane ways, he actually answers, "Having orgies including goats doesn't make them possessed...only horny."  God help us all.

The real problem with the film, however, is that it doesn't scare.  Harlin knows how to bring us action, but how to make a serious scare film seems to elude him.  He had a blast with one of the better Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, but without a certain campiness to fall back on, he seems lost.  You can definitely detect moments when he tries to channel Friedkin's vision, but they only serve to show how weak his movie is by comparison.  And if I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times...directors who try to create scares with sudden loud noises lack imagination and only know how to startle instead of frighten.

The picture is well-photographed and generally well-acted, but the fact that it goes for blood and guts and sudden sounds just makes it another run-of-the-mill horror flick that just happens to bear the name of the greatest one ever made.  I think it's time to recognize that the heart has long gone out of this franchise and exorcise any further attempts to resurrect it.

NOTE:  The Paul Schrader version is currently getting some play at international film festivals, and could possibly see the light of day here in America in the future.

Video ***1/2

From brightly lit outdoor sequences to the murkiness of the interiors of the dig, this anamorphic transfer rises to the challenge of its demands.  Color schemes are striking despite some deliberately monochromatic scenes, and no noticeable grain is apparent, even in the dark stretches.  Only a wee bit of over-saturation in one or two spots keeps this from earning highest score, but make no mistake...this is a striking DVD to look at.

Audio ****

Simply outstanding...this disc will likely merit consideration for this year's DMC award in this category.  The 5.1 audio is extremely vibrant and dynamic, with the rear stage in almost incessant employ, creating not only the eerie ambient horror atmosphere, but adding depth and dimension to the crowd scenes, the hollowed out feeling of the buried structure, and the activity of the archaeological dig.  Spoken words are clean and clear throughout, and the score by Trevor Rabin is quite impressive.

Features **

Renny Harlin, as per the norm, offers a pleasant and insightful commentary track about how the movie was made, the cast and crew, and paying homage to the original classic.  There is also a short making-of featurette, a trailer which tries desperately to tie this film in with the first one, and some talent bios.

Summary:

Don't be fooled by the name or the remembrance of a great cinematic character...Exorcist: The Beginning is nothing new nor fresh despite the talent involved.  It might have been a story worth telling, but not in this way.

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