Poor Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) can’t even stay dead. In this ill-conceived, thematically jumbled prequel to 1973’s The Exorcist, he’s dealing with all manner of scary beasts, from Nazis and loutish drunks to the devil and badly digitized hyenas. And if he always means well, Merrin’s best efforts tend to lead to disaster, or at least prolonged, exceedingly personal confrontations with Satan.
Merrin engages this battle in Exorcist: The Beginning in two time periods. I the film’s present, 1949, he’s a lapsed priest stumbling around Cairo, sweating and boozing in order to forget his past, when he was tormented by Nazis. The extent of this torment is revealed in the harrowing, piecemeal flashbacks: suffice it to say that he’s forced to participate in terrible deeds (“God is not here today, priest,” sneers the head Nazi in charge, repeatedly). Merrin feels so bad about it that he leaves the priesthood for archeology (“I wanted to work with something real,” he explains, “something I could touch with my hands”). And so, in Cairo, he’s not only grumpy and dirty, he’s also got a little Indiana Jones thing going on, which gets him hired by a leering Brit, Semelier (Ben Cross — and what’s happened to his career?), to find an ancient (evil) icon, first spotted in the film’s very first scene, a sweeping look at ancient battlefield carnage that indicates this icon is associated with Satan or someone very close to him.
Merrin heads to Kenya, where he starts mucking about inside a remarkably well-preserved 1500-year-old church, featuring Christian iconography, in particular, an oversized crucifix hanging upside down on a chain, and various other relics damaged and filthy (this chronology is somewhat confused). Upset by the desecration but knowing there must be a scientific, fact-based explanation, Merrin sets about his investigation, hassled by the dig’s overseer, the angry, alcoholic Jeffries (Alan Ford), whose bubbling boils might be a manifestation of his offensive sensibility, or maybe an affliction bequeathed by the devil that is so obviously lurking in this place.
Other nominees for the villains column are Major Granville (Julian Wadham), who likes to stick pins in butterflies, and Rome’s official emissary, the suspiciously hapless-seeming Father Francis (James D’Arcy). Worse, he soon finds himself distracted by the earnest, beautiful, and lonely doctor, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco). Indeed, the famously sober Father Merrin is here so despondent that he’s drawn, briefly, to a glistening-skinned, chiseled-cheek blond whose big scene involves her emerging from a shower and walking through seemingly endless hallways (in her simple Kenyan home) with a towel barely tied around her heaving chest. To be fair, Merrin misses this performance, and he’s initially attracted by her very sad story — a husband reportedly dead of some nefarious ailment.
Merrin’s more interesting relationship in The Beginning is with a young boy named Joseph (Remy Sweeney), apparently possessed. (This is rather chillingly demonstrated when his brother (James Bellamy) annoys him and he summons a pack of snarling hyenas — as they rip the older boy limb from limb, Joseph stands silent and unmoving, as if in a trance, you know, like the demonic dogs have emerged from somewhere deep inside him. While several locals wail and wonder what to do, Merrin grabs a rifle and blasts away: Father Merrin, action hero. Who could have imagined it?
Merrin even has a sidekick, sort of. That would be loyal and wise Chuma (Andrew French), the local who plays intermediary for the tribespeople and the white interlopers by speaking English and crossing himself, driving Merrin around, and explaining the obvious. It’s both predictable and frustrating that the movie resorts to this clichéd device, the native informant who looks after the white hero because he’s so overcome by the strangeness of the local culture that he can’t look after himself. Here, that strangeness has a particular tinge, of course, even with the witch-doctory efforts to release Joseph from the devil, by means of leeches and ritual chanting. Their efforts are no match for this raging Catholic demon, though, when the bed starts rocking and the glass starts breaking and the furniture starts flying. (No spinning heads, though.)
But even amid the turmoil, the film’s most egregious aspect is its unconsidered use of colonialism and racism as backdrop for the devil’s fight with Merrin. With no mother in sight, Joseph is occasionally attended by his worried father, but clearly lured by the tall white man, to the point that, following an especially traumatic event, he gazes up on Merrin and murmurs, “Father!” Now, yes, Merrin is regaining his calling, but didn’t anyone think through the ramifications of this image before they put it to celluloid?
It’s difficult to say who’s responsible for what in this film, as it’s had so many hands in it over so many years. This script, credited to Alexi Hawley, likely has little to do with previous versions — one that was supposed to be directed by Tom McLoughlin, another by the late John Frankenheimer (that was set to star Liam Neeson), and still another that actually was directed by Paul Schrader, and rejected by Morgan Creek CEO James G. Robinson (this after he tried to cut it himself, because, he told Schrader, it wasn’t “scary enough”). The result was bad blood between filmmaker and producer, and a new script, new cinematographer (Vittorio Storaro) and new director, Renny Harlin (perhaps best known for making the outrageous and mostly fun stalker-shark movie, Deep Blue Sea, and swapping girlfriends with Jeff Goldblum).
Now that this sorry saga is public (Schrader not one to hold back when he feels wronged), the company is talking about releasing Schrader’s version (which recently earned William Peter Blatty’s blessing) on the DVD along with Harlin’s. The prospect is intriguing not only because Schrader’s version can’t help but be more interesting than the one released to theaters, but also because of the work put in by the cast members who worked on both, primarily Skarsgård and Scorupco. Theirs are audio commentaries that seem worth hearing.