CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT #6: EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(In a desert amidst a driving sandstorm stand our faithful reviewers, MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES.)
MA: Bear with me while I try to speak over this sandstorm. Welcome to another installment of Cinema Knife Fight. Today L.L. and I review EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING.
LS (raises arms): The power of Christ compels you!
MA: I’m impressed.
LS: It’s only a movie…
MA: Speaking of which, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. Should you see this movie, you might want to bring a book. Okay, it’s not THAT boring, but it’s not all that exciting either.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING is not a bad movie. It’s just not a very good one. It tells the story of Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) and his first encounter with the devil. The character of Father Merrin was played by Max von Sydow in the original THE EXORCIST (1973), one of the best horror movies ever made, and so, with that connection, there certainly is an emotional investment in this film. Learning some of the history of the Merrin character is rather interesting, and his scenes are the best ones in the film. Skarsgard’s performance I thought was a good one, and the character is likeable. No problems here.
The plot is simple. The ruins of an ancient church are discovered in a desert in Kenya in 1949, and Merrin is sent to investigate. What he discovers eventually leads to his first meeting with Satan.
The film works best when it’s a ghost story mystery. I liked following Merrin along on his investigation. But it’s at its worst when it delves into its horrific moments. For example, a key scene with hyenas is weakened by some poor special effects. The creatures are obviously fake (compare this scene to the famous “dogs in the graveyard” scene in the original THE OMEN (1976) and you’ll find there is no comparison). Also the climactic exorcism is hindered by an abundance of special effects that take away from the creepiness of the whole thing.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING is well made, well acted, but very, very slow, and not all that scary. In a strange way, it would have been more frightening if the grotesque elements in the film weren’t there. Shaped in a different way, this could have been a more successful picture.
(MA turns to LS and finds him snoring. MA nudges him awake.)
LS: Huh, huh? What were we talking about?
MA: EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING.
LS: Oh, yeah, I knew that. Well, I sat in the movie theater waiting for something to happen for a long time, and nothing happened. Some fake blood came out of nowhere. Some kid’s bed shook a lot. Stellan Skarsgard looked very serious as he tried to solve some mystery about an ancient artifact. Computer-animated hyenas and crows didn’t help at all. And then, by the time someone finally got possessed, it was so hokey it seemed like a parody of the first EXORCIST movie.
THE EXORCIST is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. But this new movie…
First off, we have Skarsgard, who’s been in lots of cool foreign and independent films, including several Lars von Trier movies and the original version of INSOMNIA (1997). He’s a solid actor. But what’s he doing here? When we first see him, he looks like a down-on-his luck Indiana Jones wannabe who is hired to find an ancient statue. This is Father Merrin from the first movie? But he fools us, because this isn’t an action flick at all. In fact, you could call it an inaction flick. Instead of Indiana Jones, he plays a man sleepwalking through a movie.
The rest of the cast is bland and forgettable. The script, co-written by celebrated author Caleb Carr, is like a walk through the desert while you’re on too much codeine. Then you find out it is directed by Renny Harlin. Isn’t this the guy who made CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995)? What’s he doing mucking around with THE EXORCIST?
You know, I really like the fact that horror movies continue to do well at the box office, but when is the last time you saw a movie that was really scary? I can’t think that far back right now.
MA: I found SIGNS (2002) scary.
LS: (head turns 360 degrees) Come on now, we’re trying to do a serious review here.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING wasn’t scary; wasn’t much of anything at all. The funny thing is, there’s supposed to be a whole other movie, I guess also called EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote TAXI DRIVER (1976) and directed great movies like AFFLICTION (1997). Schrader is a much more interesting director than Renny Harlin, but the studio wasn’t happy with his version. So this one’s an improvement? Somehow I think the guy who created Travis Bickle might have made a film a little more interesting than this snooze-fest.
The whole time I watched it, I felt possessed. Possessed by the urge to take a nap!
MA: Yes, I read about the Schrader version, too, and I hear it might show up on DVD. As for this version, I found myself looking at my watch, that’s how bad things got! But the one thing— the only thing— that saved this movie for me, and by “save it” I mean kept me awake, was its connection to the original EXORCIST. Because of Max von Sydow in the original, I like the Father Merrin character, and that carried over into this film. And Skarsgard’s good in the role, but other than this, I agree with you that it’s a yawn fest.
LS (now has the voice of an old woman): The connection to the original film didn’t do squat for me. This guy had nothing to do with the von Sydow’s Father Merrin. And this movie has nothing to do with the original EXORCIST, as far as I’m concerned.
MA: I guess I have more of an imagination than you. I easily made the connection from von Sydow to Skarsgard.
LS: (voice of Paris Hilton) That’s hot! Actually the reason the connection didn’t work for me was a little something called a weak script. Besides, what do you know? You’re the guy who found SIGNS scary. Did the big bad aliens scare you? Maybe you’re too fragile to be reviewing horror movies.
MA: No, big bad M. Night Shyamalan scared me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! As for you, I’ve had all I’m going to take (pulls out a bell, book, and candle).
LS: (revs up chainsaw) Bring it on, SIGNS-boy!
MA: Until next time…
(Originally published in the HELLNOTES newsletter on September 16, 2004)
© Copyright 2004 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares