Posted: 08/20/2004


Exorcist: The Beginning


by Del Harvey

Lord, have mercy on the moviegoer.

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This, the fourth in the Exorcist series, proves the old film distributor’s adage that you can only get so many dollars out of a gift horse. Exorcist: The Beginning’s production history should be infamous by now. The film’s first director, John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) died during pre-production. The film’s second director, Paul Schrader (Cat People, Auto Focus) was fired. Which brings us to the third contestant in the Exorcist 4 sweepstakes, Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Mindhunters) who was brought in to re-shoot the entire film. As if that weren’t enough, there were three writers, including novelist Caleb Carr (The Alienist), assigned to this project, which can barely be called a story. It’s a little late now, but I’ve come to realize that when they use an image from the first film in the series (Regan’s possessed face) in the advertisements, then they’re sending out warning signs.

In this version, we are introduced to a younger Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard playing the role originated by Max Von Sydow in the 1973 classic), currently no longer a priest but hanging around in seedy bars in 1949 Cairo. “Mr.” Merrin has renounced the cloth because he was forced by the Nazis to single out resistance fighters for execution in World War II Holland, and is now leveraging his historical knowledge into archeology. Now, if someone can explain to me how or why the Nazis let a Catholic priest live when they were openly killing and slaughtering anything not fully aligned with the party, that’d answer that first little bit of “Huh?”

Merrin is approached by a mysterious gentleman with a strong British accent and a French name and given a commission to steal a relic from a completely intact, 1,500-year-old Byzantine church that’s being excavated in a remote region of Kenya. Next scene, Merrin’s in Nairobi and hangin’ about with the leader of the excavation crew (Alan Ford—Bricktop in Snatch). Funny thing is, this guy’s got some puss-filled boils all over his face and his teeth appear to have been soaked in sugar from birth. Apparently he smells, too. He takes Merrin to the excavated church, which the local tribespeople (wisely) will not enter. Before going, Merrin is introduced to the local doctor, named Sarah (Izabella Scorupco—Reign of Fire, Goldeneye). She’s the object of the yellow-toothed crew leader’s desires, of which he openly shows, much to everybody’s disgust. Sarah has the appearance of an angel, and is attracted to Merrin, but later she proves her true meaning to the film: to remove her top and bare her ample bosom.

The rest of the film generally disintegrates from here. And we’re barely 10 minutes into the story. There are no frights or chills in this bland excuse for a sequel. Stellan Skarsgard (Ronin, Insomnia) is the perfect choice to portray a young Max Von Sydow, but he is given almost nothing to work with here. He’s convincing when it comes to shouting out the devil (“The body of Christ compels you!!”), but the writers did little to connect the obvious lineage between this film and the original, which would only seem like the obvious thing to do.

The demon shows up in the most obvious place, and instead of anything new we’re given a weak rehash of Regan’s possession from the first film. Worst of all is the performance of a young tribal boy whom everyone mistakenly believes to be the possessed one (Remy Sweeney), whose acting ability is abysmal. This is odd, considering how many parents work 20 hours a day to make sure little Tommy and little Ashley are ready to be professional actors at the age of, say, 6 years?

The special effects and makeup are cheesy-looking. This is forgivable in low budget horror, but not in a film bearing the name Exorcist. But the worst crime of all is the cinematography and set design. The entire thing has the look and feel of a soundstage, thus removing any semblance of fright or reality. Considering the cinematographer was the esteemed Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), this is a crime.

Somehow, Exorcist: The Beginning ends up being extremely bad, and not even as interesting as John Boorman’s sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic. On a redeeming note: the producer has threatened to release Schrader’s cut of the movie this fall. Can you say, “Too little, too late”?

If you have the opportunity to see this film, don’t. Instead, I recommend walking into a busy intersection and diving for the nearest oncoming truck. You’ll thank me for this advice later.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and hates bad remakes.

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