When William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel, The Exorcist, first appeared in 1973, it immediately established itself as a classic, opening up a new area of exploration for the horror flick and exerting a powerful influence on the genre. Stressing the religious component in horror, only vaguely touched upon in the past, the picture acknowledged the actual existence of evil, embodied in Satan himself, who, in the words of the Catholic prayer, roams the world seeking the ruin of souls.
The first horror flick named for the antagonist rather than the menace, The Exorcist also introduced an audience ripe for religious instruction to the ritual of exorcism, thus in effect inventing the sacramental horror film and inspiring a score of imitations that featured various members of the clergy opposing the Prince of Darkness with bell, book, and candle.
The Exorcist not only provided material for other films, it also subsequently copied itself in two generally unsuccessful sequels, one of them directed by the author of the original novel. Now, perhaps inevitably, a prequel appears, indicating that the late 20th-century religious revival continues to transfix both Hollywood and the West. Exorcist: The Beginning also reflects the now familiar pattern of transforming an original and successful movie into a franchise, in the tradition of Rocky, Star Wars, Star Trek, and all those James Bond flicks.
The movie takes place in East Africa in 1949, when the title character, Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård in the Max von Sydow role) first confronts the powers of darkness in the famous ritual now practiced by dozens of earnest actors in vestments. The younger Father Merrin has left the priesthood, his faith shaken, as a series of flashbacks shows, by a Nazi atrocity he witnessed in World War II.
A respected archaeologist hired by a collector to find a mysterious ancient artifact, Merrin travels to a dig in Kenya, where workers have unearthed a perfectly preserved Christian church apparently buried after its construction. Merrin's investigation, predictably, leads to a number of other mysteries and his first confrontation with the great Adversary of the movies.
Merrin's work on the excavation brings him into contact with an array of characters, all of them in one way or another affected by the malignant forces surrounding the buried church. The Vatican sends an idealistic young priest (James D'Arcy) ostensibly to insure the proper treatment of the consecrated place; an attractive physician (Izabella Scorupco) runs an infirmary for the local Turkana people; the obnoxious drunk who oversees the workers suffers a hideous eruption of pustules somehow connected with the dig; the original discoverer of the church goes mad and kills himself.
When the Turkana tribesmen blame the outsiders for a series of disasters, a troop of British soldiers, led by a loony major, arrive to guard the Europeans. The movie for a while turns into one of those colonial flicks.
The various and scattered plot elements and characters coalesce around the relatively simple central confrontation between Merrin and the demon who dwells beneath the buried church. The gradual unraveling of the mystery of the church and his rather slow awakening to the possibility of some abnormal forces at work in the catastrophic events he witnesses revive Merrin's faith and recall him to his vocation. Paradoxically, his acknowledgment of the existence of evil leads him to righteousness and belief, ultimately enabling him to become the exorcist of the original film.
One of the most important elements of the original Exorcist is its acceptance of the traditional Biblical notion that evil exists as an entity derived from an actual being, the Devil himself. The new movie only superficially toys with the argument about the source of evil.
Merrin, traumatized by Nazi atrocities, asserts that human beings create evil from within themselves without the assistance of any supernatural figure. Unfortunately, when that figure finally appears, he looks distressingly like the same old gargoyle of the first movie, and the character he possesses and inhabits behaves distressingly like dear old Linda Blair, though without the revolving head and the famous regurgitation.
The filmmakers apparently chose Stellan Skarsgård because he shares Max von Sydow's Swedish birth and background. Unfortunately, since he lacks the imposing presence and high seriousness of he predecessor, the resemblance is only residential. Perhaps as a consequence of the drab dialogue and circular plot, none of the other actors achieves any particular distinction.
The always relevant question of the meaning and origins of evil surely deserves a more imaginative, more exciting, and yes, even more frightening examination than this essentially tepid treatment --- the demon never seems all that scary or finally, all that difficult to defeat, and let's face it, we expect that Adversary to be a worthy foe, otherwise both the great battle and the simple fact of goodness itself would be too easy.
Exorcist: The Beginning, starring Stellan Skarsgård, James D'Arcy, Izabella Scorupco, Remy Sweeney, Andrew French, Alan Ford; directed by Renny Harlin. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Greece Ridge; Regal Henrietta.