If there is, as has been whispered for years, an “Exorcist” curse, it’s just struck again. Not just in terms of the famously troubled production of this misguided prequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, which involved one director (John Frankheimer) who died before shooting could begin, a second (Paul Schrader) who was sacked after his version of the picture was deemed insufficiently frightening and shelved, and a third (Renny Harlin) who was seriously injured shortly after he took over. No, the curse is most evident in what Harlin has wrought–a grimly goofy, tediously bloody, dismally un-scary trashing of Friedkin’s original that fits comfortably with the myriad other “supernatural” disasters of recent years, like “End of Days,” “Lost Souls” and “Bless the Child.” Viewers may retch while watching it, but it will be because they’re appalled by its lack of quality, rather than because (as was often the case in 1973) they’re terrified by what’s happening on-screen.
As “The Exorcist: The Beginning” opens, Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), the Dutch priest who will perform the Catholic ritual over the possessed Regan a quarter-century later, is facing a crisis of faith after witnessing the enormities of World War II (periodic flashbacks to which seem a tawdry use of Holocaust imagery). Wandering through Cairo, he’s tapped by a mysterious antiquities collector to travel to British East Africa, where a pristine sixth-century Byzantine church (the script says fifth, but it must be sixth because the Emperor Justinian is mentioned as its builder) has been unearthed in a place it ought never to have existed, and secure a relic–a totem of a demon–his employer wants before the archeologists can get hold of it. There he locks horns with Father Francis (James D’Arcy), a young missionary whose certitude has no bounds, and who’s purportedly been assigned by the Vatican to insure that the excavation takes proper care to observe the religious formalities (actually he’s a cog in the obligatory Vatican cover-up), while making common cause with Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco), a do-gooder who’s come to aid the locals. The three outsiders soon have to deal, however, not only with the natural suspicion of the tribesmen, but with spooky goings-on that emanate from the site, including a bunch of ravenous hyenas. Madness and violence begin to suffuse the area, and a young boy named Joseph (Remy Sweeney) appears to become the focus of the evil radiating from a place beneath the church. Could it be our old friend, the demon Pazuzu at work? You betcha!
“EB,” to shorten things up a bit, is a hash, no better at recapturing the mood or impact of Fridekin’s original (which was reissued recently with added footage and, though clearly dated, still carried a considerable wallop) than were John Boorman’s hilariously awful “Exorcist II: The Heretic” of 1977, which mostly consisted of Richard Burton and Linda Blair sitting around with bowls on their heads and Burton endlessly intoning the name “Pazuzu,” and William Peter Blatty’s more earnest but oddly dull “Exorcist III” (1990), which the writer-director adapted from his book “Legion,” tacking on an exorcism to justify the title change. Part of the problem, of course, is that the subject, which was shocking and revolutionary in 1973, has become a commonplace, earning even a cinematic spoof in the dreary “Repossessed” of 1990 (in which Blair actually starred). But setting that aside, the script by first-timer Alexi Hawley (from a story by William Wisher, touched up by novelist Caleb Carr) is a farrago of bad ideas, mingling lots of the turgid theological hokum familiar from the earlier sequels with clumsy efforts to make the demonic stuff induce chills once more through cheap shock tricks (one even lifted from “Halloween”-“Friday the 13th” fare) and disgustingly gory effects. And Harlin’s overbearing, stentorian directing style doesn’t help. Under the circumstances Skarsgard, a fine actor, does what he can, bringing a hint of dissolute dignity to Merrin, but when he’s forced into frantic mode it’s embarrassing; D’Arcy, in an absurdly brief and thankless part, projects a cool smugness that fits Father Francis’ character but doesn’t make him especially endearing, while Scorupco proves little more than the obligatory female addendum until a twist in the final reel sends her into exhausting overdrive. Sweeney, however, earns a degree of sympathy in what’s essentially a gender-reversal of Regan, especially for the physical discomfort he probably endured in playing the part. It has to be said, though, that the picture has been mounted extravagantly. Stefano Ortolani’s production design is evocative though dank, and veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro has fashioned moody, occasionally striking widescreen images. (One wonders, though, why characters’ breath shows in some of the sequences well outside the demonic orbit. Does Kenya really get that cold? Very doubtful.) Unfortunately, Trevor Rabin’s score is utterly ordinary; he may be from a rock background, like Danny Elfman, but his music has none of Elfman’s distinction.
For “Exorcist” fans, this misfire can only seem a rip-off of the original, and even by more general standards of the supernatural horror genre, it’s pretty lame. Though one looks forward to seeing whether Schrader’s take on the material will be any more effective when it’s released (as promised) on DVD, for now one can only hope that “The Beginning” will also be “The End” of a franchise that appears to have run out of good story ideas.