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Old 03-12-2005, 11:12 PM
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Default Exorcist: The Beginning




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: March 12, 2005

Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 3/1/2005
MSRP: $27.95
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes



inline Image The seedlings for another foray into the immensely popular Exorcist franchise began after the surprising box office success of a theatrical revival of the original film during the fall of 2000. Released in limited engagements initially, demand was so strong that it expanded nationwide, racking up a potent 40 million to add on to 193 million of its initial release, making it by far the highest grossing horror film ever made. So with interest rejuvenated for the franchise, Warner Brothers brought in one respected 70s auteur to replace another. Paul Schrader, the celebrated writer of many of Scorsese’s best films, as well as an accomplished director of darker films himself, namely Hardcore and Cat People, was brought in take the reigns from the original helmer, William Friedkin. What sounded like a great choice by Warner Brothers quickly deteriorated into a compound of production problems.

After numerous production delays and re-shoots, Warner Brothers ended up axing Schrader’s directorial vision from the final product. Deemed to cerebral and slow moving, Warner completely abandoned Schrader’s film, canning his final edited product in favor of starting anew. Hiring the flashier direction of Hollywood stable mate, Renny Harlin, the entire film was re-shot and redone. Instead of giving them a more marketable product, the finished version of what is now known as Exorcist: The Beginning ended up putting Warner in the hole, losing more money overall than all its domestic box office grosses. With Schrader’s version still nowhere in sight, the WB has sought to give Harlin’s cut yet another chance on DVD. So is this a strong addition to the head-spinning original, or a prequel better left forgotten?

The Story

inline Image Twenty five years before he’d meet the possessed Reagan MacNiel in the original film, Father Merrin (this time played by Stellan Skarsgard) was experiencing a spiritual dilemma of his own. It is 1949, and Merrin is still trying to shake the brutal memories of World War II from his mind. Serving as a priest during the Nazi regime, he was forced at gunpoint to choose ten innocent Jews to be shot before his eyes. He hesitated, and a small girl was ruthlessly slain. The image of her falling corpse haunts his memories, and has caused him to lose his faith. He no longer goes by the “Father” moniker, instead working now as an archeologist. His relatively sheltered existence is again put in jeopardy when a wealthy tycoon seeks his help in finding a demonic emblem buried in Africa. With the allure of money and a need for exploration, Merrin agrees to hunt the object, but ends up finding more than he bargained for.

inline Image Upon arriving in Nairobi, Africa, Merrin is shocked to learn about a recent archeological dig. Under the dirt a 1500 year old Christian Byzantine church was found, despite the fact that Christianity was not introduced into the area until only 1000 years ago. What’s more bizarre is that the church is in pristine shape, as if it were buried the second it was built. He decides to explore the tomb along with another priest, Father Francis (James D’Arby), and slowly it becomes clear. There was an ancient battle 1500 years ago, where the evils in man overtook the warriors, causing everyone to anarchically turn on each other, leaving all but a single priest dead. In order to extricate the evil grounds, the priest demanded a church be built and buried, but within that church the evil still lurks.

inline Image The land is rumored to be the fallen grounds of Lucifer, and many of the townspeople start experiencing demonic sightings: hyena attacks, stillborn births, and unprovoked bleeding. Merrin turns to another Holocaust survivor, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), for condolences, but her dark past only makes him realize more about his faith and the evil secrets that lurk beneath the ground. As war breaks out between the natives and the English imperialists, Merrin must face the demon that lurks within the church as well as the demons of his past.

inline Image Exorcist: The Beginning is in no way the mess it could have, and should have, been. The production values are strong, from Stellan Skarsgard’s quietly reflexive performance to Renny Harlin’s showy visual style. The concept for the film is arguably the film’s strongest asset, conceived of by writer William Wisher. Wisher is most remembered for his masterful work behind Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and in many ways The Beginning further builds on the ideas introduced in T2. Humanity’s degradation in times of extreme war and the central theme that one can only truly see goodness after the darkest of suffering are themes that extend from T2 to The Beginning. Wisher does a good job at juxtaposing the evils of Nazi Germany with the evils of possession, where Nazi degradation became such a dehumanizing affair that in many ways Jews had their souls sucked out from them the same way Reagan lost hers in the first film. There is something poetic in the fact that after Nazi Germany, Merrin chooses to work in archeology, where he can work with “something real” rather than a religion that he cannot believe exists. World War II did a great many things, but probably worst of all it depleted the souls and the beliefs of many, so that Lucifer became something much more real than God.

inline Image If we’ve learned anything from Iraq, it is that history repeats itself, and Wisher injects war critique into his story of faith as well. It was a great battle between man that brought about the evil 1500 years ago in the film, and by the end that battle is repeated once again. English troops are brought in to help exorcise the supposed demons of the land, but instead they end up killing thousands of the country’s indigenous people. The evil is not the Africans’ fault, yet the English, with their ever imperialist notions, use that as their excuse to further cultivate their land. Compared to the original film, Wisher’s idea of the evil is not as supernatural as William Peter Blatty’s original. Instead of being mainly a force from hell, evil is, as Merrin puts it, “a human condition inside all of us”. So like man created the machines that would nearly destroy civilization in Wisher’s T2, man also creates the evil of demonic possession that would destroy millions in The Beginning. It is with little coincidence that both Exorcist: The Beginning and Terminator 2 came out directly after the both waves of the Bush administered Iraq wars; both films were William Wisher’s attempt at showing the destructive nature of mankind, and how the faith of the few may save the world in times of war.

inline Image William Wisher only penned the initial story for what would eventually become Exorcist: The Beginning, having his ideas further diluted by screenwriters Caleb Carr and Alexi Hawley. While his intriguing take on war and evil still resides in the film, it is not the center of director Renny Harlin’s vision. Harlin was hired for his ability to punch up the intensity of Schrader’s initial cut, and while does add punch, he also loses substance. Instead of the story, which was very strong, Harlin puts the focus on the suspense, following endless people through endless tunnels as scary things continuously go bump in the night. While this can be effective when used in the right situations, Harlin basically fabricates the film with a scene structure that entails one scene of exposition and then another of suspense. The formula becomes monotonous, as the same characters keep experiencing the same frights while the story just sort of lingers. In going for continuous jump scares, Harlin turns what could have been a powerful meditation on faith and horror into a boogeyman movie.

inline Image Harlin basically apes the most lurid aspects of the original film, leaving the more intricate and subtle aspects of the story in the dust. All of Reagan’s dirty cuss words have been recreated again in The Beginning, but they seem so much more forced and so much more empty. Compared to a quote like “shove your rotten cock up her juicy ass” from The Beginning, Reagan’s “Fuck me! Fuck me!” spiel in the original sounds surprisingly tasteful. While there isn’t much projectile vomit in The Beginning, Harlin sure opted for a lot of blood. The film is very bloody and gory, featuring countless more scenes of bodies being torn, sliced and pecked apart. But despite the added gore and the harsher dialogue, the film still seems much tamer than the original. The original was more effective because it saved its shocking scenes and used them sparingly. Harlin goes on a gore parade throughout the final half of the film that all possible reaction becomes nullified. The viewer becomes numb.

inline Image William Wisher’s initial story called for the subtlety of one man’s exploration of faith amidst crisis, but what Harlin delivered is an overblown journey into horror excess. Given the strength of the original idea behind the film, Schrader’s much more cerebral directorial style would have likely done a much better job at creating a more emotional and unsettling experience. The fact that Harlin’s flashier, simpler cut made the theaters over Schrader’s is telling of the studio mindset today. In the seventies audiences were considered as smart, and filmmakers as true artists. Today, studio heads seem to view audiences as uneducated sheep, and filmmakers as tailors to a product. While this may be the sad reality, at least audiences proved their intelligence by ignoring this film in theaters. By itself it is not a terrible film, but considering that it is a dumbed-down replacement of an artist’s original vision, it is a travesty.

Image Quality

Exorcist: The Beginning was lensed by one of cinema’s greatest cinematographers, longtime Coppola and Bertolucci collaborator, Vittorio Storaro, so it is no surprise that the film looks exquisite. That said, the transfer of the film does justice to the imagery, with this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer seeming almost 3D in its clarity. The mélange of orange and grey hues creates a nostalgic and at times cold atmosphere that is accurately represented in this transfer. The muted colors look nicely saturated, and the transfer is exceptionally clean. Blacks are dark and solid, and really stand out from the rest of the colors. Aside from the grays and oranges, the red of blood is the only other prominent color, and it looks deep and vibrant. The most notable scene is when Skarsgard and Scorupco kiss and in the foreground blood can be seen forming in an IV bag. The whole film looks great though, in equal parts due to Storaro’s cinematography and Warner Brothers’ mastering job for this transfer.

Buyers beware: the film was released in separate pan and scan and widescreen versions, and given the masterful compositions, watching the pan and scan DVD would be an atrocity. Stick with the widescreen if you must see this film at all.

Sound

Both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included on the film, and both sound fine. The DTS track has the usual depth over its Dolby Digital counterpart, but truth be told, both tracks lack a certain oomph. For a movie that relies on musical cues for jump scares as much as Exorcist: The Beginning does, the sound mix should be a lot more forceful. Surrounds are utilized in more of a generic fashion, with little directionality. Dialogue is split up nicely in the front, but again, the wind, screaming and crowing sounds all lack a directional punch. It seems more like a by-the-numbers track than one with real intensity. It’s effective, but only in a basic sense. Warner Brothers has delivered an acceptable 5.1 sound, but nothing that goes above and beyond in terms of envelopment or creativity.

Supplemental Material

inline Image Considering the troubled history behind the making of the film, Warner Brothers keeps everyone in the special features very quiet about the production problems. Renny Harlin does a commentary, but barely addresses the Schrader cut at all, never even mentioning his name. He instead talks about the changing dynamic of film language today, and how music videos and commercials are influencing the rhythm and editing structures of modern film. Not exactly a new observation, but Harlin is surprisingly acute in his observations. He goes a little far when he supposes that today’s audiences would find the original film slow moving and drawn out, but he still offers some good comments. He talks at length about his motivations on building on the original film, and talks about locations, cinematography and the mythology behind these films. He is humbled by the bad CGI, which is nice to see, considering it is distractingly bad at times. Still, despite Harlin’s frankness and panache for chatter, the track is hampered by the fact that he skirts over the film’s production problems. Since that is what most people want to know about, it is unsatisfying when it is never revealed.



inline Image inline Image inline Image



The only other extra is an 8 minute behind-the-scenes featurette, which is all fluff. It includes the three principal actors, Skarsgard, Scorupco and D’Arby, as well as Harlin and producer James G. Robinson. All of them basically blow hot air at each other, trying to sell the film to those who already have the DVD. The theatrical trailer, which is also included, is about as extensive of a look into the film as the featurette.

Not a lot of extras, but the film requires little more. It again would have been nice to get more input on the production problems behind Schrader’s cut and how Robinson commissioned Renny Harlin as a replacement, but maybe Warner will save that for a later when (if?) Schrader’s cut is ever released on DVD.


Final Thoughts

Shot with visual flair by Vittorio Storaro and containing Renny Harlin’s music video-friendly composition and editing rhythms, Exorcist: The Beginning sure looks nice. It is also based on a strong story by William “T2” Wisher, but unfortunately the two don’t synthesize. Harlin’s picture opts for jump scares, gore and shallow shocks rather than the ominous subtlety that the script requires. The transfer looks great and sounds fine, but the extras are pretty superficial. There is hardly any information about the production problems or Schrader’s original cut, which is a shame. Hopefully one day Schrader’s cut of the film will be released, allowing his vision to finally be exorcised from the confines of studio politics. Exorcist fans may enjoy watching the film to see the seedlings of greatness planted within the marred production, but overall the end result is sadly empty. A soulless shell of an original vision.

Rating

Movie - C-
Image Quality - A
Sound - B
Supplements - C


Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour 53 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English DTS 5.1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English subtitles
  • French subtitles
  • Spanish subtitles

Supplements
  • Commentary with director Renny Harlin
  • Behind-the-scenes featurette
  • Theatrical trailer

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Old 03-13-2005, 12:36 PM
Pimp
I saw this recently and thought it was okay. I pretty much agree with Rhett's review. But with the way everyone trashed it, I expected much worse. The CGI was pretty obvious, but the film still had some good moments.
 
 
Old 03-14-2005, 08:19 AM
It's beer time.
I saw it in the theater and was entertained. It doesn't do much for the legacy of the series, and the climax is pretty silly. But I didn't think it was as horrible as a lot of other people did, especially if you think of it more as a stand alone movie and try not to compare it too much with the other Exorcist films. Stellan Skaasgard can make most movies at least watchable and I thought he did a decent job here. It was a decent summer popcorn flick.
 
 
Old 03-20-2005, 10:28 PM
I agree. I went into this one expecting the worst and was pleasantly suprised.
 
 
Old 04-01-2005, 07:53 AM
I never expected that Warner Bros. stole the script for Indy 4, but it is obvious they did. The original title of this film was The Adventures of Father Merrin: Raiders of the Lost Church.

In all seriousness though, it wasn't THAT bad. It is an interesting failure though.
 
 
Old 04-03-2005, 04:14 AM
Better than I anticipated.
 
 
Old 04-07-2005, 04:03 PM
Victim
It almost sounds like some of you wouldn't have enjoyed this film as much without the admittedly over-zealous criticisms heaped on.

Personally, I wasn't very entertained by it, but I did "enjoy" watching it for the "seedlings" of something greater that were peeking through the gore. Once you are given the concepts of the film, you can see how it could have been pretty good.
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