SYNOPSIS: Long before the devil or Pazuzu or whoever settled into Regan MacNeil, he did battle with Lancaster Merrin in Africa, after an outbreak of mysterious mysteries: flocks of crows, hyena attacks, the works. Could it be related to the Byzantine-era Christian church they're uncovering? All signs point to yes and it's poisoning relations between the military and the local tribal warriors.
Renny Harlin directed this version of the EXORCIST prequel and, whatever else you might say against it, you must admit that it often looks great. Composition and lighting are generally excellent (those yellows), camera movement is interesting, and effects are effective. Kind of surprising that a guy who's mostly known for action movies and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 would deliver such a gorgeous film, but the world is full of surprises.
The acting is generally serious and credible, especially if we're talking leads Stellan Skarsgard as young Merrin and Izabella Scorupco as past-haunted doctor Sara. Sara's a great character for lots of reasons (and a missed opportunity, ultimately) and Scorupco turns in a spirited performance. Skarsgard is good, too, far better than some of the material warrants, but let's save that bitching for later.
Not that shocking that a movie predicated on nostalgia would include lots of nods to the original EXORCIST, but it's still cool to see touches like Pazuzu (granted, he's in Africa for some reason, but you cannot attack horror movies with too much brain logic)...
Everyone in the EXORCISTverse is so friendly!
This really does boast some intriguing ideas. It doesn't get to third base with many of them, but one must respect the potential of throwing a bunch of Nazi Germany scenes into an EXORCIST movie. Relevant William Friedkin quote: "All the social conditions aside, the only thing that explains the Nazi atrocities to me is the demonic possession of an entire nation followed by an apocalyptic exorcism." EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING was not a suicide pact, so it didn't completely delve into this provocative idea, but the seeds are there and worth seeing. Likewise, the intimation that Satan (or whoever) is stoking dissension between the white invaders and the black natives is pretty compelling, even if it's mostly just the excuse for gory battle scenes.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
Too much of the time, this prequel, set in 1949 (well before THE EXORCIST), feels too modern and too mired in modern horror cliches. We get jump scares, rapid editing, spooky techno music, and gallons of gore. The first EXORCIST was outrageous and contained impolite content, but it didn't feel like the slashes and puking were inserted to fill a quota. That's sometimes the case here, unfortunately, especially in the hilariously overblown opening. Millions of inverted crosses, brah! AFFLICTION TAPOUT RRRRGGGH
Most of the non-CGI stuff is pretty well done, but it does occasionally feel cynical, because it doesn't really serve a purpose in terms of the story. THE EXORCIST made it crystal clear that Satan (or whoever) was wreaking all this physical havoc to make humans lose faith in themselves and God. In THE BEGINNING, violence and brutality happens for the sake of making makeup fans say, "Wow" or "Whoa". Plus half of the CGI stuff totally blows (the half that involves swarms of flies that look like swarms of raisins).
That's not the only departure from the EXORCIST's excellence. In terms of narrative and content, THE BEGINNING feels far less like a horrifying film about spiritual warfare and more like a hybrid of an Indiana Jones adventure and a video game final battle screen. The last thirty minutes get excruciating, as the mystical or spiritual side of Merrin's battle with evil get pitched in favor of a physical conflict using Catholic weapondry. +100 HOLY SCARF ATTACK UNLOCKED. It's laughable to see our antagonist demon getting knocked down the hallway like a battered wife, dodging holy-watered headbutts and Bible thumping. The final demon/Merrin interactions are mostly disappointing, too, and feel like a dialogue recycle of EXORCIST with all the brains smushed out. I also didn't buy Merrin's hasty redemption, as he spends most of this movie scowling around as a bitter ex-priest (for no reason we're told), then just suddenly has a total change of faith back to where he started. Father Merrin, the John Kerry of Catholicism!
That's a whole lot of negativity, so let's chill a bit and admit that THE BEGINNING could have been far worse. At its direst moments, it gets bland, but never really becomes objectionably bad. And it certainly never wallows in error as EXORCIST II did. I'm curious to see if the Paul Schrader version of this (up next!) will retain BEGINNING's strengths while 86ing its flaws.