Movies

'Exorcist' Prequel Won't Turn Any Heads

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2004

You say the S&M scene has got you down, brother? Boy, I know how that feels. Somehow the latex hood just doesn't cut it anymore, the handcuffs don't degrade you enough, the sting of the cat-o'-nine-tails just doesn't punish the way it used to. It's a snooze. Wake you when Mistress is done, right?

Brother, have I got a movie for you.

For self-abuse, for self-flagellation, for the utter abrogation of the ego, for humiliation beyond measure, for the scalding sense of unworthiness, nothing these days quite does the trick like "Exorcist: The Beginning."

It manages a trifecta of pain: It's dull, it's grim, it's stupid. How's that for a recommendation?

In fact, far more interesting than the movie is the chronicle of its making. Having used up the sequel gambit ("Exorcists" 2 and 3 being forgettable), the filmmakers decided to go the prequel route and take us back to the exorcist's first set-to with the mind-snatcher literally from hell. One must say it's not a bad commercial premise. One must say that not only didn't it turn out, it didn't turn out twice.

Originally, the great director John Frankenheimer signed aboard, but before shooting started, he walked off the set and promptly died, possibly of shame. He was replaced by Paul Schrader, who theoretically knows a little about horror, having directed "Cat People." He actually rewrote this "Exorcist," then made it. He finished it. It was done. But, uh, what about the blood?

No blood. A surprise from the writer of "Taxi Driver," but no blood. So the whole thing was junked. Renny Harlin, a Finnish action specialist ("Die Hard 2" was his hit) came in with a new writer and literally made another movie, which includes less than 10 percent of Schrader's footage.

But other than to service that small community of masochists, one has to wonder why he bothered.

It's a botch, start to finish. For one thing, it never really defines a central dramatic situation that propels the story onward, as did William Friedkin's deeply terrifying 1973 original. That pop classic, derived from William Peter Blatty's novel, took your soul hostage in the first few minutes, telling a story of a child seized by a demon, beyond the reach of science, degraded and dehumanized, until only a man of faith could stand up against the evil that had taken charge. Hmm, this one is about a bunch of people hanging out in the desert.

You know what: Hanging-out movies, darn it, they just never work.

Stellan Skarsgard plays Lankester Merrin, the character of the exorcist in Friedkin's original, there played by Max von Sydow. Skarsgard, Swedish = Von Sydow, Swedish. See how the Hollywood mind works? Except that Liam Neeson, Irish, had originally signed to do the part.

Anyhow, as the film opens, Merrin is not an exorcist; he's not even a priest. He keeps flashing back to what looks like a cheesy '50s war movie, which explains his loss of faith. He's become some kind of Indiana Jones-style archaeological relic thief, and we watch as he's hired by a mystery organization to infiltrate a dig in East Africa (it's 1949) where a mysterious, nearly pristine early Christian church has been found buried in the sand. There, he's to steal what reports say is a demonic statue. You don't have to pay any attention to this part of the movie, because the rest of the movie pays no attention to it, either.

The dig is marked by three unique factors: a beautiful Polish actress (Izabella Scorupco) pretending not to be beautiful (without much success) as she swills Pernod from unmarked bottles; doors that need oiling, because every time one opens, it screeches like scrap metal in a meat grinder; and lots of gruesome but pointless shock scenes.

Hmm, do you like it when the baby full of maggots is born to the African chief or when the drunk British site manager is hung upside down in bloody tatters on the altar of a church? Or possibly your thing is watching an African child torn to pieces by killer hyenas for about 19 very long minutes?

I must confess losing contact with the plot because it hadn't yet begun by the time the level of groaning in the theater drowned out the dialogue. It seems to end with Merrin fighting a she-demon in the Batcave. Where is Adam West when you need him?

Exorcist: The Beginning (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme gore.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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