The original EXORCIST spent much of its time trying to convince Ellen Burstyn that Linda Blair was possessed and required the services of the title character. Its prequel, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, spends virtually all of its time trying to convince us that there was a reason for it to be made. Made, I might add, not once, but twice. The official story is that the first version, directed by Paul Schrader, wasnt scary enough, so the whole thing was turned over to Renny Harlin, he of DEEP BLUE SEA and THE LONG KISS GOOD NIGHT and CUTTHROAT ISLAND to re-shoot and punch up. All I can say is the Schrader version must have been completely inert if this is an improvement.
It is a murky thing, with a leaden pace to match the color scheme of the art direction. Throughout its running time, people walk down suitably dark corridors, jittery mood music rising, until something happens, usually involving blood. Harlin, known for his penchant for blowing things up or otherwise making them go boom, takes a decidedly leisurely approach to this project. The shocks are few and the terror is more ooky than chilling, which will terrify those members of the audience suffering an obsessive-compulsive neat freakness, but leave the rest of us cold.
In the midst of all this gloom is ex-Father Merrin, this time played by a painfully lugubrious Stellan Skarsgard, who is drinking himself into oblivion in Cairo in 1946. We learn through a series of flashbacks that he left the Church after a particularly nasty run-in with the Nazis in his homeland. When a mysterious stranger tempts him with an archeological dig in Kenya, excavating a church where no church ought to be, he balks. But when the stranger shows him a cast of a demons head found there, he cant get there fast enough. The demon in the church is Sumerian, by the way, for no reason that I can think of other than that the Sumerians dont have an anti-defamation league.
The church has been buried for 1500 years and, from the looks of it, was consigned to the earth as soon as it was finished. Naturally, there is evil there. Naturally the local tribe knows all about it, but remains mum when it comes to cluing in the people digging the place up. This is especially odd since they are doing the actual digging. Naturally, Merrin cant wait to get inside where all sorts of odd things are to be seen, including an upside-down crucifix and cannibal crows. Odd things happen, things go bump in the night, maggots swarm, an innocent child is tormented by unseen hands, and the local doctor (Izabella Scorupco) is a luscious thing so that Merrin might be tempted by more than just the bottle.
Theres one other thing that is a small detail, but one worth noting. When viewed from below, the dome of this evil church is encircled with a border of six-pointed stars. Fans of alchemy will recognize that symbol as the Seal of Solomon, and, along with everyone else, its other esoteric designation, as the Star of David, also known as the Jewish star. That it shares space with apses surrounded by borders of swastikas, the Hindu symbol for rolling thunder as well as its better known, modern affiliation, is something that bears some pondering. This is a film, after all, that deals with Nazi atrocities and survivors guilt without, and this may be a first, without including any Jews in the story. Even the concentration camp survivor is carefully presented as a Gentile. Granted, a film that exists solely to demonstrate an exorcism as prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church would have been problematical with Jews in the mix, and yet it does depict a traditional African ritual.
Somewhere along the way, in one of the many, many drafts of this screenplay, perhaps there was a cogent line drawn between the evil that men do and the evil that arises from evil incarnate. It has been lost here. That our good once and future Father Merrin lost his faith in the face of one and found it again in the face of the other is an intriguing idea worth exploring, but one that was dropped in favor of faux chills and a tedious re-hashing of the originals exorcism sequence.
Or maybe we’ll find out that the reason for the Nazis in the first place was someone disturbing another of those mysterious buried churches, this time in Berlin, and, voila, the sequel to the prequel in the form of another prequel. Now THAT’s a scary thought.