Having witnessed the evil that men do firsthand, the formerly devout Father Merrin has lost the faith and abandoned the Mother Church. In an attempt to quell his nightmares, he seeks solace in the bottle, and falls back on his training as an archaeologist to make a living as a professional plunderer. When a wealthy collector hires him to go to a dig in Kenya to retrieve a valuable icon, Merrin is intrigued. Upon arrival, he discovers that the object in question rests in a buried pristine Church, that predates Christianity in the region. Soon after, a series of sinister events befalls those associated with the dig, and it appears that Merrin has stumbled across the very source of evil that he has tried to escape.
There has to be a decent script around here somewhere.
After 'The Exorcist' shocked moviegoers in 1973 there was talk of a prequel. The studio, in its eminent wisdom decided to do two sequels instead, both which succeeded in horrifying investors. In 1997 Warner Brothers announced that they were going to make 'Exorcist the Beginning', only to have the project stall when their director of choice – John Frankenhiemer - suddenly died. Paul Schrader, who helmed such edgy fare as 'American Gigolo' and 'The Comfort of Strangers', was brought in as a replacement, but Morgan Creek deemed the final product to be too intellectual and moody (god forbid!), so the studio shelved it.
In search of a savior to resurrect the franchise, the powers that be went hunting for a new director. But who? Scorcese? No. Verhoeven? No. Bertolucci? No. Obviously the man to punch up the proceedings was Renny Harlin. You remember Renny, the director of 'Cutthroat Island', the film that single-handedly killed the pirate genre for almost a decade. But, hey, everyone’s allowed a turkey. Of course his resume also includes 'The Adventures of Ford Fairlane', 'The Long Kiss Goodnight', and 'Driven'. With a track record like this what could you possibly go wrong? Yeah, I know, stupid question.
I’m going to start off with the good news. Stellan Skarsgard, one of my favorite actors, is superb as the conflicted Father Merrin, a man whose pain is reflected in his eyes. Merrin is tragic without being annoying – there are no “Please feel for me” style speeches – he has been a unwilling pawn and struggles to make peace with himself. Skarsgard rises above the thin, often ridiculous script and provides a temporary diversion from the surroundings. I also enjoyed the fact that, like the original 'Exorcist', there are two scenes that gave me that pins-and-needles-hair-standing-on-end effect. Unfortunately, they are too few and far between.
As the movie that is supposed to set the stage for one of the scariest film’s of all time (I watched the original last week and it still gives me the oogies) 'The Beginning' is woefully inadequate and disappoints on almost every level. The story contradicts key elements of the original film, the dialogue is laughably bad, and the expendable characters engender litter interest. Harlin is also guilty of “borrowing” (“stole” is such an ugly word) most of the intended “scary” stuff from the original - but no matter how you shake it, a wiggling cot simply is not as frightening as a queen sized bed bouncing around.
When he isn’t copying 'The Exorcist' Harlin relies on low brow horror to elicit a response: there are maggots galore, bodies being rendered limb from limb and some silly battle sequences. Unfortunately for Harlin the effect on audiences who’ve been bathed in cinematic blood from the likes of Freddy, Jason, et. al. is muted at best. Finally, attempts to shock the audience with vulgar dialogue sound and look like a 'Sex in the City' Halloween episode.
After more than three decades of waiting for a worthy successor (or more accurately progenitor) to 'The Exorcist', audiences are sure to be disappointed with 'The Beginning', a poorly written, badly executed knockoff that provides few chills. It will probably trade on its namesake’s reputation and attract a couple weekends of decent box office until it fades into oblivion on DVD. Renny Harlin should go back to what he does best – what that is however, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely not writing or directing.