August 22, 2004

Movie Review: Exorcist: The Beginning

First I must ask, was this film necessary? I don't really think so. The original film is one of the most chilling films ever made and stands well on it's own. There have already been two sub par sequels that didn't really go anywhere. Who though that we needed, or even wanted, another Exorcist film? With that out of the way, I will say at first watch it seems better than either of the sequels, and like some other sequels this summer, is not a complete waste but is still far from being a success.

The concept is a good one. Father Merrin, the exorcist in the original, had obviously had some contact with Lucifer prior to Regan's possession. This film would go back in time to when Father Merrin first encountered the ultimate evil and the effect that that would have on him. At the core, it is story that could make for compelling cinema. The problem comes from the dissenting opinions of the studio executives. At first John Frankenheimer was set to direct, but bowed out of the film shortly before his death. He was replaced by Paul Schrader, who shot the film, edited it and delivered a finished product. The studio said there wasn't enough blood in the film and Schrader was fired. The studio then brought in Renny Harlin to, essentially, make the film a second time. Reportedly, 90% of the film was reshot. There was also a change in the lead actor, prior to any shooting. Originally Liam Neeson was set to star only to be replaced by Stellan Skarsgård. In the end, the film was finished to the studios liking. Although, they didn't like it enough to screen for critics.

So for some reason, I decided I wanted to see the movie, today turned out to be the day. It turned out to be another in a long line of frustrating films. Part of the problem was the title, if they released it under a different name, it may have been better received, but that's besides the point at this stage. The problem with the film is that the story is not nearly compelling enough and there is an over reliance on cheap jump scares. I have no problems with the jump scare, they have their place and should be used in moderation, here it seems they were tossed in to add excitement to the numerous dull moments.

We follow Father Merrin, now just Mr. Merrin as he has left the Church. He is contacted by a group of people who have found a church buried in the desert, and need someone to authenticate it. Merrin, along with Father Francis, are dispatched by the Vatican to go to the site. Once at the site strange things happen, people are going crazy, people are missing, crosses turn themselves upside down, the works. It is soon discovered that this was the spot where Lucifer landed after being expelled from heaven. From here it spirals into some pointless action, some extraneous characters, until we get to the final showdown which tries to build tension and excitement but is interrupted by some "action" scenes and some blood. I did like the resolution, although there was another missed opportunity, this time in the lack of the Exorcist theme.

Hands down the best thing about this movie was Stellan Skarsgård's performance. He brings a great level of believability in the midst of so much fluff. We can see that he is a troubled man, marked by an experience during WWII that I would not wish on anyone, ultimately causing his loss of faith. The thread focusing on Merrin's faith is most interesting, reminding me a bit of Mel Gibson's character arc in Signs. The growth he goes through and the revelations he has, are represented wonderfully. Other than that, there are no other terribly impressive acting performances. This is demonstrated perfectly by Ben Cross' character, Semelier, a pointless character that leads nowhere and features a horrendous make-up job. The script is generally dull and uninspired, and is probably good to take much of the blame for the movie.

I can't remember the last time I saw such bad CGI in a major release. The effects are awful, in most cases they don't mesh with the real backgrounds, or vice versa, the live action with the inserted backdrops. Hyenas with glowing eyes, swarms of flies, nothing works, it is just plain bad, none of it looks natural. The CGI enhanced possession looked like a reject from Evil Dead 2. Again, combined with a story that has no focus, doesn't know if it is a dramatic thriller, or a gore filled horror film. That lack of focus doesn't give us anything to identify with, it just serves to distance us from the tale.

The base story is interesting, but there was enough meddling done to take away any hope of a good film. While not ultimately worthless, it could have been a lot better. I could go so far as to say, if not for Stellan's performance, it wouldn't even be worth seeing. Still, for the most part, I would not recommend seeing this, although it is probably a bit better than The Order.
Not Recommended.


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