It's interesting to note that a lot of this film worked extremely well, and was surprisingly effective. On the down side, the good stuff is scattershot through the film and amounts to only about half. The other half ranges from mediocre to downright laughable. Makes me wonder what the original version of this film must have looked like (SEE SIDEBAR)!
Let's roll back from the original film all the way back to 1949. "Father" Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård), the original "hero" from 1973's The Exorcist, has lost his faith, and is now a globe trotting Archeologist (the dude even dresses just like Indiana Jones). Hired by a clandestine organization (consisting of who? Pazuzu only knows), Merrin journeys to Kenya to discover a Christian Church buried just a few years ago in 5 AD. Sound like a Stretch? Even Merrin takes issue with it. However, why the church was built and then buried, and what the history of this place really is happens to be the real meat of the matter in Alexi Hawley's Ocean-Choppy script.
Of course, the answer lies in the other Exorcist movies, and fans of the series will most certainly see most (though, this man admits, not all) of the surprises. Truth be told, this film is pretty damned serious about being a valid prequel, almost more than it is interested in being a good damned movie. There's the overall feel of a checklist included here with the writers, and indeed director Renny Harlin himself, taking notes on all the puzzle pieces of the original Exorcist without managing to capture any of what made the original a great, great movie. It's less claustrophobic and tries to be quite epic, but it never quite feels like what it should be, an Exorcist movie! In many respects this resembles Exorcist 2: The Heretic in so many more ways than William Peter Blatty's original work.
A further culprit in the deadening of this movie are the special effects. The 1973 The Exorcist was decidedly low-tech and effective in its realistic creepiness. While there were some out and out shocks, the success if the original was in its realistic building of the deep fear. Here, Harlin and company go for Computer Animation for their special effects, and effective they're not. Far too often the realism is sacrificed for a Cartoon-like computer effect that ultimately looks pretty rubbery. Hey, dividing funds between not one, but two full length movies (of the same name) means some areas have to suffer somewhere, and, let's face it, even Spider-Man 2 doesn't feature seamless effects transitions! Still, where subtlety once did the trick, the fear is in-your-face in 2004, like a puss filled ZIT! Ultimately this film is not too scary, as all the frights are substituted with starts, or gross outs and shock value is the word of the day. After about the fifth time the audience jumped only to find that the object of terror was some innocuous goof, that was pretty much all she wrote, and the audience began to laugh out loud. If the kids are laughing at your horror film, that's not a good thing, Homer!
Again, though, the glass is half full! The acting is pretty good, and Skarsgård is a surprisingly well-cast replacement for Maxy Von Sydow. There are some pretty effective scares once in a while, especially surrounding Remy Sweeney's Joseph and the beautiful Izabella Scorupco's Doctor Sarah. James D'Arcy's young priest named Francis also makes for a good part and a big surprise.
And, I was surprised to be surprised. I'd have thought that this film would have been as predictable as Spock ears at a Star Trek Convention, but there were a few wowing moments that I didn't see coming. Shock value or not, the surprises that do work are slimy, yet satisfying. Of course after the occasional success the film falls into the same numb routine that makes it far too top-heavy and bland for perfection.
In short, Exorcist: The Beginning might have been a great movie with some more spit and polish, but as it is, it's a Three Star out of Five motion picture. What can I say... it's better than Exorcist 2: The Heretic, but it's not quite up to the par of Exorcist III, and it isn't even in the same DVD rack as the original The Exorcist! On the other hand, the Catholic in me was consistently gratified by the triumph of faith over demon possession, and even Merrin's predictable embrace of the Cloth resulted in a fat "Huzzah" from me! So, until the Schrader version hits DVD... I'll see you in the next reel!
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