Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

exorcistthebeginningwsr“The Exorcist” is my favorite horror movie of all time and to this day no matter how much I see it, it’s still the most intelligent, character based horror film I’ve ever seen; the rest of the series? Not so favorite of mine, but regardless, after a lot of hype about this movie and the constant problems, we’re given this. After nearly five years of filming and constant problems (Original director dying, Original star dropping out, and so forth), this film basically bombed big time with both critics and movie-goers despite moderate success in the box-office. The original director Paul Schrader — who was kicked off the production (You’re morons Hollywood execs) in favor of Renny Harlin (Again, morons!) — directed his own version before being forced off, and while I imagine it can’t be as bad as this, I hope it’s at least an improvement.

Now after constant negative reviews, I bet you’re wondering if this is as bad as you’d heard; here’s the review you’ve been really waiting for (sarcasm folks… and wishful thinking). Well, I was thinking how this film and the original are so representative of their times, in a good way. The original film has the mentality of intelligence where the writers and directors don’t under-estimate the audience, and appreciate the slow pace, characterization, and slowly building tension for the power-packed finale, while this movie basically shows how we’ve evolved as story tellers and how Hollywood thinks of us. Quick fix, fast story, senseless and utterly pointless violence and gore, and zero plot. This is how it was, a basically awful film that was so bad it left a bad taste in my mouth and rage in my heart.

So, now people will debate forever which is worse, “The Heretic”, or “The Beginning”, and I’ll have to go with this. Renny Harlin is a mystery wrapped in an enigma because it’s a wonder why he continues getting work in Hollywood. He goes about this movie not with the honest approach of trying to make a good horror movie, but with a very obviously pretentious effort which also takes from better films. So, while this is a bad movie, it’s also a contrived bad film that often times made zero sense. Firstly, the opening which is both ridiculous and brainless also doesn’t make a lick of sense, and then we warp into 1949 where we see Father Merrin, a young Father Merrin. I love the character of Father Merrin and Max Von Sydow is excellent in the original film, and I liked Stellan Skaarsgard but he can’t save this mess even with his talents.

So, we begin with the clichés as we find a young Father Merrin in a shady dark bar drinking himself in a stupor when he’s approached by the church to go back into duty. Now, here is where Father Merrin is turned from a great character into a badly drawn double cliché: Not only is he drinking in a dark bar, but he’s also a priest whose lost his faith. Ah, that old chestnut. What was sad is that this doesn’t follow the whole continuity of the original exorcist. It’s alluded that in the original Father Merrin was a powerful priest, yet here he has no faith, so how can someone with weak faith help a possessed child? We saw how problematic that can be in the original with young Father Karris. It would have been great and cool to see Father Merrin this powerful servant of the church who has his first run in with the devil. Having this tired character sketch is just overused and overdone, instead we’re given this character whose just a bad mixture of a priest and Indiana Jones, because not only is he an ex-priest but he’s also an archaeologist.

Regardless, if I try to explain the plot, I’d probably drift off like an old man, but all I know is it deals with a village, African stereotypes, voodoo, an underground church, the devil, and a lot of scowling, courtesy of Merrin. But what I wonder is why do these priest characters always look so down and have their arch type where they’ve lost eternal faith in god and the church, blah blah blah. For once I’d love to see someone be original and have a church priest who loves what he does. This type of character has been done a thousand times over. And we open with Merrin in a dark bar drinking himself stupid no less, how utterly original. The sad thing is the contrivances just keep on coming as the screenwriter devotes a lot of the time spent here with no plot, and plot devices taken from better movies.

We’re subjected to everything from crows swooping from the darkness (every horror movie ever made), hyenas being used as messengers of Satan (The Omen), flies with a mind of their own (Amityville), ginormous sandstorms (The Mummy), the basic look of the demonic woman in the climax (Evil Dead, Repossessed?), and many more. Along with that we’re given a lot of the most nonsensical images, and utterly ridiculous gore and graphic violence I’ve ever seen. Now, I for one am not against gore in horror, but I’m against it when it has no point (ala “Cabin Fever”). I mean, when it doesn’t bear the slightest significance and importance to the actual plot at hand, then what’s really the point? From time to time Harlin takes this movie from the ups and downs of murky, to muddled, to boring, right down to the brainless violence, and there’s just too much gratuitous pointless gore. What the hell is the point of these violent sequences? In the exorcist the violence had a point and actually meant something. It was effective because not only was it rarely shown, but it was used with a lot of power, it was shocking, but this uses gore and violence as a tool and uses it way too much for scenes that are basically meaningless and empty.

There’s a ridiculous sequence where the CGI hyenas attack a boy — what was the point of these (badly) animated hyenas? It seemed every other horror effect in this used CGI –, that ridiculous scene with the man killing himself, and so many other scenes that border on obnoxious violent, pointless violent, and just plain silly violent, like for instance, the scene with the maggot covered baby. What the f*$# was the point of that scene?! Not to mention Harlin resorts to using constant shots of blood for no reason whatsoever except for a faint attempt at shocking its audience. Suffice it to say, this was a very painful experience to sit through. When there wasn’t bad CGI, and pointless gore, there was the plot I was hoping for and Harlin gives us very little of that. The brief intermissions of plot tend to focus on an African boy named Joseph being overtaken by the devil, Sarah, the kindly nurse having her own experiences, and Merrin discovering very very slowly that there’s an evil force at hand.

Maybe the underground church should have been an indicator, but regardless, the rare character interaction and pauses for dialogue were terrible with the bad plot with the children, one of whom is being victimized by a demonic force, and then the romance between Merrin and Sarah most of which is badly written, very forced, tacked on and boring as hell (pun not intended), and there’s zero character emphasis except for Merrin whose thrown a bone with a cheesy Nazi sub-plot that is so stupid I won’t even give away. This should be a film about Merrin and his battle with the devil both personal, and religiously, it should examine Merrin’s character, and the power the devil will have on him, but we’re not given that, it’s something, a writer like me would have jumped at the chance to do. And how cheap a plot device was Father Francis who appears every twenty minutes to give us a rundown of what was going on?

As for the concept and plot, it’s appealing but ultimately badly done because it’s a misfire mostly as it tends to try to follow more along the vein of the Exorcist, but it feels more like a prequel to “The Omen”. If that’s not bad enough, Harlin fails to take the chance to re-examine not only faith, not only demons, but the whole Exorcist continuity at hand. He sets nothing up for the first film, and never touches juicy material like the devil, pazusu and many other things that any writer would have loved to tackle. This film, if done right, could have been a great examination of the church, and the whole theology to begin with. We never discover anything much about the demon pazusu, or the devil other than the fact that they seem to have it out for Merrin, and we’re left with many questions. Is the devil involved in the exorcism in the first film? Is the demon pazusu connected in any way to the devil? Is it just the demon pazusu at hand in this movie? Is pazusu a form of the devil, or just a powerful demon?

So, is that why the demon pazusu appears years later, because Merrin stopped it from possessing a woman, taking a child, and ravaging a village? What was Pazusu trying to do to the village? There’s so many more questions I have no need to ask, but then it looked like the writers just seemed to run out of ideas and developed an awfully cheesy climax that was just embarrassing. The ending, an obvious poke at the original, would be a very good homage to the original film had it not been so campy, hokey, contrived, poorly done and long, yet instead looks like Harlin and the screenwriters ran out of material and just made it a basic rip off of the original climax of the original movie. It’s terrible. Nonetheless, I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, but I just couldn’t. Not since “Gigli” have I had such an utterly painful experience in watching a movie. There are movies that are so bad they’re good, and there are movies that are so bad they make you angry, this was the latter. Contrived, cliché, murky, muddled, and an utterly gory mess of horrible storytelling, this is an awful, terrible movie that not even Skaarsgard could save. God be with you. I think I’ll check out the original, instead.