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A surprisingly worthy prequel to The Exorcist,
This review is from: Exorcist: The Beginning (Widescreen Edition) [Import] (DVD)I was quite prepared to be less than enthusiastic about this prequel to one of the truly immortal films of all time. The unfortunate death of John Frankenheimer, the original director, fanned rumors that the whole production was cursed, there's a lot of talk about the original version of this prequel being abandoned by yet another director (Paul Schrader), and I heard almost no one in my circle of acquaintances discussing this film at all after its release. The whole idea of prequels is also pretty tricky in and of itself, as even the great George Lucas has learned. I really didn't bring too many expectations of any kind with me into Exorcist: The Beginning, and maybe that's why I was actually quite impressed by what I saw. Stellan Skarsgard, it must be said, turns in an excellent performance as Father Merrin. This really is an excellent film and, in my opinion, a worthy prequel to The Exorcist.
Don't go in looking for projectile vomiting and head-spinning; this is not The Exorcist. There is a surprising amount of depth here for those willing to immerse themselves in the story. There will be demonic special effects for all those who care only about that kind of thing, but you will have to wait a little longer than you might like to see them. Exorcist: The Beginning is not really about Lucifer or demonic possession or even exorcism per se; this story is really about Father Merrin and how this great man of the cloth lost and then regained the faith that would later transform him into the man we all know as The Exorcist. Humanity and faith are always more powerful themes than evil and doubt - less exciting, perhaps, but much more meaningful.
The action here takes place in 1949 in eastern Africa, where a Christian church has recently been unearthed by archaeologists - a Christian church that dates back to a time long before Christianity made its way to that part of the world. Merrin, then an ex-priest, is charged with aiding the dig and locating an iconic sculpture of a demon's head. The situation on the ground (which is said to be the spot where Lucifer originally fell after he was cast down from heaven) is less than ideal: local tribesmen are afraid that a great evil will emerge from the buried structure, the British army is wary of a tribal rebellion there, and decay and misery (not to mention flies and less savory insects) seem to engulf everything in the humid atmosphere. The original leader of the expedition has been consumed by madness, a number of men have disappeared, and Merrin finds scenes of desecration inside the ancient walls of the church (including the proverbial upside-down cross of Jesus). Soon, a local boy is taken ill after witnessing a traumatic event, begins showing signs of possible demonic possession - and then everything really starts to fall apart around Merrin. The film may move too slowly for some viewers for the first hour, but I think the director did a wonderful job of building suspense for the showdown we all know is yet to come. The ancient, remarkably preserved church hides many secrets of a most unsavory nature, and it is here that Merrin's lack of faith in the God he once served is eventually challenged by a manifestation of evil powerful enough to break down the formidable barriers he has placed around his tortured soul.
The reasons for Father Merrin turning his back on God and the church serve as the emotional centerpiece for all that is to come. It is hard to imagine the Father Merrin we know from The Exorcist having ever abandoned his faith or entertained unholy thoughts, but this prequel makes clear, in the most poignant ways possible, how such a tragedy transpired. Merrin is a man truly and justifiably haunted by his memories. It takes a face-to-face meeting with evil incarnate for Merrin to find what he has lost in himself and in his God. The final confrontation, which comes with something of a twist, is almost anti-climactic, largely because the job is much easier than it should be (very little of the battle is waged on psychological grounds). The special effects are well-done, but a lot of the R rated material here seems contrived, actually taking something away from the power of the film's story of redemption lost and regained.
This is really quite a dark film, as you might expect, but more so for the psychological and human aspects of the story than for the outwardly demonic manifestations of evil. There is a significant amount of gore and demonic symbolism in the film, but my reactions to the film were much more internal than external. Obviously, Exorcist: The Beginning didn't deliver what many Exorcist fans expected of it but that does not make it a bad movie. In my opinion, this film is vastly underrated.