Exorcist prequel is doomed before it gets started
It would a challenge delivering a prequel to what is widely considered one of the best—if not the best—horror films ever made, so it goes without saying that if you put action-hack Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) behind the wheel, the vehicle won’t get very far.
The back story on the production is as interesting as the final result: The original director was canned, replaced by John Frankenheimer (who promptly got sick, was replaced by Paul Shrader, and then died). Shrader filmed the movie, which was deemed by The Suits as “not scary enough,” and was fired. Harlin was brought in, judged the footage unusable and re-filmed the entire flick. Of course, with such a schizophrenic heritage, the results are going to show on screen.
This Exorcist plays like three different movies: Act One comes across like a humorless Raiders of the Lost Ark; Act Two plays out like a knock-off of The Mummy; with the closing Act Three evoking the Evil Dead trilogy more than the project’s antecedent.
Of course, there are nods out the wazoo to the original, but these come across more as tired riffs than creative tribute. Add to the mix the most embarrassing digital effects I have ever seen in a theatrical release and oddly placed homages to Italian schlock-meister Lucio Fulci (odd in that the man’s oeuvre was noted in its animosity toward the Catholic Church)—and this should have been a completely worthless experience … but, the thing is, the beginning comes promisingly close to being a pretty good chiller.
Stellan Skarsgård is a refreshingly rumpled lead as the former Father Merrin, vagabonding about in post-war Africa after losing his faith due to that B-movie staple, the Nazis. He is contracted by a suspicious character to oversee the excavation of a newly discovered Christian Byzantine church, incongruously buried beneath the sands of Kenya. He arrives to hook up with the equally incongruous sexy village doctor (Polish model Izabella Scorupco) as things begin to get decidedly weird, and it dawns on the faithless Merrin that dropping God from his vocabulary might not have been a good idea. Cue bad CGI hyenas, maggots, inverted crucifixions and a man rotting alive.
Up until the obligatory exorcism, Exorcist: The Beginning delivers with a leisurely creepy atmosphere (read: slow-paced but effective), but when the possessed begin to snarl out campy obscenities, things go south fast. Hopefully, this near-miss won’t be held against Skarsgård and Scorupco, leaving Harlin to take the bullet.