Every few years, a movie comes along that is a true phenomenon. These movies permeate not only the filmgoing public, but our entire culture as well. Almost by definition, a phenomenon is something that is unique and cannot be duplicated. But, the powers that be in Hollywood don't like the word "no" and will try to re-capture lightning in a bottle over and over again. When The Exorcist first hit movie screens in 1973, it became one of these phenomenon films and the legend of the film quickly grew. And even after two financially disappointing sequels, Hollywood is still trying to capitalize on the fame of that influential movie some 30 years later with the release of Exorcist: The Beginning, a film whose behind-the-scenes story is much more interesting than the movie itself.
Exorcist: The Beginning is a prequel to The Exorcist and tells the backstory of Father Merrin, the exorcist from the original film, who was played by Max Von Sydow in the 1973 movie. As Exorcist: The Beginning opens in 1949, where we meet Merrin (here played by Stellan Skarsgard) in Cairo. Merrin had been a priest, but due to some violent experiences in his past, he's since left the church. Merrin is approached Semelier (Ben Cross), a mysterious man who asks Merrin, who has a background in archeology, to venture to Africa to retrieve an artifact from a dig. Once in Africa, Merrin meets Father Francis (James D'Arcy), a representative from The Vatican, and Sarah (Izabella Scorupco). The archeological team has uncovered an ancient church buried underground which dates back to a time before Christianity reached that part of the world.
As Merrin begins to investigate the area, he learns that the locals are afraid of the dig site, and that there have been some mysterious occurrences in the region around the church. The evidence begins to point towards something supernatural happening around the excavation and Merrin realizes that he must recover his lost faith and prepare to battle the ultimate evil.
While perusing the chat forums on this very website, I often see posters debating about "bad" movies. For me, there are two kinds of "bad" movies. First, there are low-budget movies that never really stand a chance because of bad acting, bad story, bad lighting, etc. Then, there are those big-budget Hollywood films which have the luxury of offering name actors, nice sets, lush cinematographer, but still fail to be entertaining or satisfying. Exorcist: The Beginning falls into this second category, as this movie, with its rumored budget of $50 million is a true stinker.
It's truly appropriate that a movie concerning the ultimate evil would commit what I consider to be the ultimate cinematic sin; Exorcist: The Beginning is boring. For the bulk of the film, nothing happens, save for Stellan Skarsgard wandering around African sets looking both concerned and confused. The story fro Exorcist: The Beginning was written by popular novelist Caleb Carr and James Cameron collaborator William Wisher, but the final screenplay was penned by Alexi Hawley, who has cobbled together a jumbled series of scenes in which little happens. When something does take place, the audience is typically in the dark as to what it has to do with the overriding story. During the final act, just before all hell breaks loose (literally), the film becomes a sort of whodunit?, as we (the viewers) are supposed to wonder which character is possessed by the evil. To be honest, up until that point, I hadn't realized that the question was going to come up. One of the oddest things about Exorcist: The Beginning is that it really makes no connection to The Exorcist. If the viewer didn't realize that Merrin is the character from The Exorcist, and let's face it, most filmgoers don't memorize character's names, then they wouldn't have a clue as to how this pitiful film relates to the horror classic.
While Exorcist: The Beginning purports to tell the origin of Father Merrin, the origin of the film itself is much more interesting. When the project was first announced, legendary director John Frankenheimer was attached to direct, but stepped down due to health issues. Then, Paul Schrader took the reins and shot the film. However, studio executives reportedly didn't like his version and fired him, hiring Renny Harlin to re-shoot much of the film. As is his reputation, Harlin gives the movie a nice look and the finale is well-done, but he can't overcome the ludicrously dull script and gives the movie no sense of suspense at all. Rumors abound on the internet that we will one day see Schrader's version so what we may compare the two movies. I truly hope that this is the case, as I can't imagine Schrader's film being any worse.
Exorcist: The Beginning possesses DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film is coming to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is quite sharp and clear, and looks very good, as there is only a slight amount of grain visible on the picture. The colors are all very natural-looking and the daytime scenes are never overly bright and the nighttime scenes are never too dark. There are some trace haloes around the characters when they move, but they aren't distracting, and there is no overt artifacting on the image. Overall, a nice video transfer.
If you think that the movie Exorcist: The Beginning is a let-down, wait until you hear the great audio which accompanies this bad movie. The DVD contains both a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and a DTS 5.1 track. Both of these tracks sound great, as they provide clear and audible dialogue with no audible hiss. The movie has a very nice sound design and these tracks make great use of the surround channels and subwoofer. During the few action scenes, the sound surrounds the viewer and does add a little something to the movie. The edge here goes to the DTS track, as it is crisper and provides a deeper bass sound, but both are very good.
The Exorcist: The Beginning DVD contains only a handful of extras. We start with an audio commentary from director Renny Harlin. This is an odd track, as Harlin is very open about the short amount of time that he had to complete the film (10 months) and points out flaws such as the crappy CGI in the movie. Yet, he never mentions the fact that he was brought in to fix Schrader's film. I can only assume that he was told not to. Harlin also turns up in "Behind the Scenes", an 8-minute featurette which contains on-the-set footage and comments from the film's actors. The extras are rounded out by "Cast & Crew" bios and the "Theatrical Trailer" for Exorcist: The Beginning, which has been letterboxed at 1.85:1.
It could be argued that Exorcist: The Beginning isn't necessarily a "bad" film, but a disappointing one. But, that would be splitting hairs, as the film is simply boring and not entertaining. Stellan Skarsgard does an admirable job in the film and director Renny Harlin certainly knows where to point the camera, but they can't save a film which was damned from the beginning.