By Brian Rentschler
Short version: A major disappointment that relies more on jump scares than genuine scares. The script is sub-par, and Renny Harlin's direction is even worse. Don't waste your time or money on this crapfest.
When a movie studio doesn't show a particular movie to critics ahead of time, that's usually not a good sign. Sadly, such was the case with Exorcist: The Beginning. Given that fact, plus the fact that Renny Harlin was directing, I went into this movie with fairly low expectations. Incredibly, this movie did not even meet those.
This movie is a prequel to the original. The story is set in 1949, several years after World War II has ended. Father Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgård), who would later be called upon to exorcise the demon from Regan MacNeil, is a troubled soul. The problem is, Father Merrin saw the Nazis do things during World War II that caused him to question his faith. Before you can say "Jack Daniel's," he has resigned from the priesthood and become a hard-drinking, tough-talking archaeologist. In a scene that looks blatantly ripped off from an Indiana Jones movie, a collector ends up hiring him to work with an archaeological team that has discovered an old church in Africa.
Movie cliché #720:
Person #1: "You're assuming I'll say yes."
Person #2: "You already have."
What is puzzling everybody is the fact that the church appears to be in pristine condition, like it was buried immediately after it was built. The other big question is how a Christian church could be built centuries before Christianity was formally established as a religion. The African tribe in the nearby village refuses to go into the church because they are afraid of its evil spirits. When Father Merrin and his team go inside the church, they find some things that seem rather out of place in a house of worship, to say the least.
Pop quiz: The African tribe has already had a few bizarre things happen. After Father Merrin and his team go inside the church, what happens to the frequency of bizarre events?
C) Stops completely
D) Lags behind the NASDAQ
I'll give you a hint: It's the obvious answer. The tribe really starts freaking out when even more bad events start to befall them. Eventually, the British Army becomes involved, and Father Merrin finds himself virtually reliving the events from World War II that he had hoped to forget. There was one line uttered by Father Merrin that got a slight chuckle from me: "In my experience, getting soldiers involved in any situation is always a bad idea." There are so many questions at this point. Will Father Merrin witness events that cause him to renew his faith? Will Father Merrin end up exorcising a demon at some point? Will Father Merrin react with shock to a "plot twist" we all figured out 20 minutes before he did?
I must admit, I kind of like the ideas behind the story, but thanks to Harlin's inept direction, it falls completely flat. The subtle creepiness of the original has been replaced with gory shock value in this one. He tries to throw in all kinds of plot twists and surprises, but almost all of them are "red herrings" that anyone with a pulse can spot a mile away. With the exception of a few "jump scares," this movie is not frightening in the least. Well, actually, let me correct myself. The only thing that frightened me about this movie was how mediocre it was. Even the musical score by Trevor Rabin was bland, which is not good when you're doing a horror movie. As much as I hate to say this, I thought the criminally overrated Blair Witch Project was scarier than this crapfest. (And no, that's not a compliment to either film.) The one-two punch of a bad script and bad direction makes every scene so predictable that you can almost write each scene in your mind before it happens.
Pop quiz: A man is crawling down a cave when his lamp goes out. After he gets the flame going in the lamp again and holds it out in front of him, what will be six inches from his face?
A) A demonically possessed person
B) The holy grail (but he must choose wisely)
C) A magical rod that attracts red dragons
D) A briefcase belonging to Marsellus Wallace
Now if you don't know the answer to that one, you need to get out to the movie theater more often. If you have followed all the films in this series, you know that as long as you stay away from Maryland and Africa, you should be fine.
Overall, this movie was a tremendous disappointment. I wasn't expecting it to be great, but when it's this bad, you have to wonder why Morgan Creek even bothered making it in the first place. The actors all do admirable jobs, but with a lousy script and inept direction, even they can't pull this movie out of the gutter. The original still remains my favorite; no other film in this series can match it. I have read reports that William Peter Blatty, who wrote the first and third films in this series and directed the third, was pleased with Paul Schrader's version of the fourth film. However, Morgan Creek chose to shelve that version and completely reshoot the film with Renny Harlin at the helm. The good news is that since Schrader's version is totally separate, there's a good chance we may end up seeing it on DVD fairly soon. Let's hope... In the meantime, don't waste your time and money on the Renny Harlin version of this crapfest, unless you're a die-hard fan (no pun intended).