31 Screams in October, Vol. 3, #4: Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

Posted: October 4, 2016 in Movie Review
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4. Exorcist The Beginning (2004)

Director: Renny Harlin

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, James D’Arcy, Izabella Scorupco

There are a lot of horror films with multiple versions available. But, whereas the other films simply had scenes added or extended, the “Exorcist” prequel goes the extra mile of having two different takes on the same story filmed separately, one after the other had been rejected by the genius studio heads. Another difference between the two versions is the cast, as the only major player to be found in both the original version and its replacement is the film’s lead, Stellan Skarsgård (as a young Father Lankester Merrin). “Exorcist: The Beginning” is that replacement.

The film is set in 1949, just after the events of World War II and during the reign of England’s King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father). A prologue, which would seem to take place perhaps as far back as just after the time of Christ, depicts a massacre of which a bearded priest resembling Father Merrin finds himself standing directly in the center. After this, we catch up with the real Lankester Merrin somewhere in Kenya, where he has been sent to find a specific relic of significant importance (to the film series itself, for one)…. that of the demon Pazuzu. It should be noted, however, that the name Pazuzu never comes up, instead replaced by references to “the Devil” and “Lucifer” as it was in the first Exorcist.

Merrin insists on correcting everyone who refers to him as ‘Father,’ because the man has lost his faith since the atrocities of WWII. In particular, he continues to dwell on an incident in which a Nazi soldier forced him to choose 10 people to be executed in order to save the remaining innocents. He even develops an intimate relationship with a doctor named Sarah (Izabella Scorupco). So what would it take to bring Merrin back to the life he was leading when we first met him in 1973 (or 1975, depending on which film in the series you go by)?

For starters, while on the search for the demon relic, Merrin unearths a church that is said to have been built 1500 years ago…. but it looks so undisturbed from the outside that it looks like it was buried shortly after being built! On the inside, Merrin finds anything but a holy place, as all the religious icons have been defaced and/or otherwise turned upside-down. Meanwhile, the village built on top of this unholy site is slowly being driven mad. All sorts of strange and unexplainable things are happening. Much of it appears to be centered around one young boy named Joseph (Remy Sweeney). Considering how much of a reworking this film’s plot is from the bulk of the flashback scenes in “Exorcist II,” I’m surprised the young boy’s name isn’t Kukumo!

One of the most bizzare things Merrin discovers is that of an old burial site which is said to have been erected when the entire village once died from a plague. Merrin raises a very good point when he poses the question: “If everyone died, then who buried them?” It turns out, as he learns from Father Francis (James D’Arcy), that there was no plague…. that this was a story concocted merely to scare people away. The truth is that the church HAD in fact been buried not long after its construction, and that steps were taken to strike all mention of it from historical records. Trouble is, those steps were not quite thorough enough. One archeologist named Bession (James Bellamy) had previously discovered the existence of the church, unearthed it, and gone mad. Merrin goes to talk to Bession, but doesn’t get too far before Bession slits his own throat.

Back at the archeological dig, the villagers are growing more and more fearful, believing that Merrin and other outsiders have brought an evil with them. The military is called in to subdue them. Sarah, meanwhile, has gone missing. It turns out that she was Bession’s wife and had gone with him inside the church. She is the the one who has been carrying the demon inside her all along. She killed Father Francis while he was mistakenly attempting to exorcise the demon from Joseph, and so it is up to Merrin and Joseph to save her. They succeed in forcing the demon from Sarah’s body, but not before it makes good on its promise of killing Sarah before allowing them to take her back. Returning from the caverns where the demon was hiding, Merrin and Joseph resurface to find that the villagers and the military officers have completely wiped each other out. Heartbroken, but his faith restored, Father Merrin returns to the life of a Catholic Priest.

As bad as “Exorcist II” is in places, I am never bored by it. There are segments in “Exorcist: The Beginning” that are coma-enducing. There are also things about this movie that are every bit as absurd as the “synchronizer,” such as the laughable CGI hyenas. Also, and this should be expected of a Renny Harlin film, but it’s truly out of place in an Exorcist film: the amount of blood and arbitrary appearances of it in some scenes is completely over the top! Even better is the question of how a group of villagers, armed only with spears and axes, stands a chance against rifle-wielding military officers. Even being able to take those officers down with them is questionable.

Clearly, the studio execs weren’t looking to improve upon the story when they forced the re-shoot, but could it have been too much to ask for decent and appropriate special effects? Thank goodness there’s another version of this movie with which one can do some proper comparing and contrasting. Skip this one.

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