Exorcist: The Beginning is a prequel to the 1973 film that spawned a host of imitators and for a while made peeling lips and projectile vomiting a sine qua non of occult thrillers. The Exorcist won Oscars for screen adaptation and sound and, while its lack of subtlety isn’t to every horror fan’s taste, it had good performances and a nasty coherence that made it watchable, if only through your fingers. Unfortunately, the prequel comes across less as an homage to a classic horror film than a listless pastiche culled from it and other sources, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Omen, Sophie’s Choice, and those cheesy amusement park haunted house rides that feature wax corpses dropping down on strings from the ceiling.
In this version, set in 1949, Father Lankester Merrin is played by the puffy, round-faced Stellan Skarsgard who – we are expected to believe – will mysteriously age into the angular, long-faced Max von Sydow Merrin who dealt with Linda Blair in the 1970s. We meet him sitting in an Egyptian bar staring miserably down at his drink from under his broad-brimmed hat, his pale shirt unbuttoned. A nattily dressed French "collector of rare antiquities" played by the devilishly good-looking Ben Cross confronts him and says, in his mocking Gallic accent, "It was not I who brought the girl into this ."
Actually, that’s another movie and a better one. In this case, the Frenchman offers him a wad of money and a cast of a sinister artifact that needs to be retrieved from an archeological site in Africa. A perfectly preserved, buried church that predates the establishment of Christianity in that region has been discovered in Kenya and Merrin, a bitterly disillusioned alcoholic ex-priest archeologist, is considered just the man to get to the bottom of this mystery.
So it’s off to the dig at Kenya, where Merrin encounters a shopworn physician played by Izabella Scorupco, an earnest young priest played by James D’Arcy, oozing facial boils, hostile natives, British soldiers who mutter "Savages!" under their breath, and computer generated hyenas with glowing red eyes. Buried somewhere deep within this humorless mess is a laudable and timely attempt to connect the supernatural evil of Satan with the human evil of warfare, but this premise is obliterated by the script’s substitution of horror film cliches for coherence.
There are interminable scenes of characters creeping down long dark corridors, flashbacks and nightmares that, of course, result in a close-up of someone sitting bolt upright in bed and staring wildly into the darkness, offensively manipulative references to the Holocaust, and, most damning of all, Merrin’s habit of exploring the buried church and digging up graves, not with a companion watching his back in broad daylight, but all by himself after sundown.
Even some of the slightly original touches are so badly done they are mystifying rather than compelling. Twice blood starts dripping to the floor between someone’s legs, a potentially disturbing image that in this case just leads to speculation about which of the many scriptwriters and filmmakers involved in this fiasco has issues about menstruation. And for some reason viewers are treated to close-up after close-up of liquid being poured into cups. Every time someone pours a drink the action has to stop while the audience watches it, hopeful that something interesting is about to happen. It never does.
As for the performances, while 8-year-old Remy Sweeny is fine as a possibly possessed child, it’s obvious that every actor old enough to understand what was going on during the long, agonizing creation of this film pretty much gave up. Stellan Skarsgard in particular seems to have decided on a no doubt sincere expression of resigned self-pity, and sticks to it whether his character is kissing Izabella Scorupco or witnessing a grotesque suicide.
For anyone who cares about horror as a genre, this film is more sad than scary. Somebody’s original vision was obliterated by Hollywood’s insistence on offering reassuring cliches in lieu of ideas. On the scale of the tragedies that unfold on a daily basis in the real world, this is not exactly overwhelming – but it is a great pity and a great waste of time, talent and resources.