- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

Could a movie opening inspire any less enthusiasm than “Exorcist: The Beginning?”

Let’s tally up the warning signs.

First, the original director’s (Paul Schrader) film was scrapped, and hackmeister Renny Harlin (2001’s “Driven”) re-shot it from scratch.

Then the finished product was held back from critics until Thursday night — too late for most newspapers to scrape together a weekend review.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is anyone clamoring for another “Exorcist” retread after two misbegotten sequels to the 1973 horror classic?

“Exorcist: The Beginning” confirms all our fears — and finds new ways to insult its audience.

Stellan Skarsgard (1997’s “Good Will Hunting”) stars as a young Father Merrin, the character played in the original “Exorcist” by Max von Sydow.

That casting coup is the one true note the prequel gets right, even if this fine actor looks lost amid gratuitous gore and cheap frights.

The prequel opens in Cairo, circa 1949, with Merrin having abandoned his faith after being forced to take part in some Nazi atrocities. Mr. Harlin hammers this point home with a number of mean-spirited flashbacks.

Now Merrin is a hard-drinking archaeologist, and he has been hired to inspect a dig in Africa after the discovery of a mint-condition church dating back to the early Christian era.

Strange things are afoot at the dig site. Workers are dropping like flies from mystery symptoms, and one worker had to be committed after entering the site.

The mystery only deepens when Merrin starts poking his newly atheistic nose around.

Could the grounds be haunted by a satanic force? Nonsense, says Merrin, though every scene points conclusively to just such a predicament.

Mr. Harlin’s sleeve isn’t always so empty. His giddy “Deep Blue Sea” (1999) proved a frothy blend of camp and horror, but when he plays it straight, as he does here, the results are pedestrian when they aren’t offensive.

We’re supposed to watch Merrin rediscover his faith as he battles the forces of evil, a precursor to his later fight on behalf of Regan, the “possessed” pea-soup-spitting victim.

Instead, we watch a laughable series of wannabe scares and suffer through an extended battle sequence between African natives and British soldiers that exists solely to spill a torrent of faux blood.

Add young boys being graphically torn to pieces by some poorly realized CGI hyenas, and you have a film that never even tries to match the original’s scare level.

You would think that over the centuries, His Darkness would think of a scarier tactic than shaking a bed up and down.

Truth be told, there’s little here that makes a prequel (a fancy word for franchise expansion) worth the effort — let alone twice the effort, given the film’s back story.

If someone wants to record a truly scary feature, perhaps they could document how it took two tries to make such a stupefyingly awful fright fest.

*

WHAT: “Exorcist: The Beginning”

RATING: R (Partial nudity, horror-style gore and mutilations, disturbing images)

CREDITS: Directed by Renny Harlin. Story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. Screenplay by Alexi Hawley. Original music by Trevor Rabin.

RUNNING TIME: 20 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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