A new “Exorcist” flick must have seemed like a good idea three years ago, with a director’s cut of the original having just pulled in almost $40 million, a huge payday for a re-release.
If there was any life left in the satanic franchise, though, director Renny Harlin has snuffed it with “Exorcist: The Beginning,” a cinematic abomination that’s about as bad as you could possibly imagine a prequel to “The Exorcist” might be (for good reason, it was not screened for critics until the night before its release).
Three-fourths of the movie is boring as sin, the other quarter is loud, crude and awash in repugnant imagery. There are no true scares, only clatter, commotion, guts and gore served up as a vulgar shock to the system that for all its excess, is not remotely shocking.
Often, what happens on screen is almost dreamlike in its incomprehensibility as Harlin besieges viewers with barbarity after barbarity.
The story — the priest of “The Exorcist” as a younger man in his first encounter with Satan — holds no intrigue compared to the movie’s behind-the-scenes tale.
Launched after “The Exorcist” reissue proved a hit, the prequel seemed cursed.
Original director John Frankenheimer left the project and died shortly thereafter, and star Liam Neeson quit.
Stellan Skarsgard replaced Neeson, with Paul Schrader directing, but the producers didn’t think the movie he made was scary enough. That version was shelved, Harlin came aboard, the story was tweaked, roles were recast, and the movie was shot again, with Skarsgard still starring.
His Father Merrin, the role originated by Max von Sydow in the 1973 original, has given up the priesthood in the late 1940s, his faith shattered by horrors he witnessed and was forced to participate in under the Nazis.
A British collector seeking a priceless artifact entices Merrin to join a dig in Kenya, where a pristine Roman Catholic church has been discovered, buried in the fifth century at a time when no Christian inroads had been made that far into Africa.
A young priest, Father Francis (James D’Arcy) accompanies him, seeking to lure Merrin back into the fold. Merrin finds temptation of the flesh with a beautiful doctor (Izabella Scorupco) and becomes a protector for a boy (Remy Sweeney) the local tribesmen believe is possessed by a demon.
The performances are wildly inconsistent, either piercingly shrill or hushed to the point of narcolepsy.
Harlin, whose clamorous and abrasive movies include “Driven” and “Deep Blue Sea,” tries to emulate William Friedkin’s grossly terrifying original, but all his images capture are the gross part. A bird pecking a man’s eye socket clean. Crows feasting on other crows’ innards. A stillborn baby emerging from its mother’s womb coated in maggots.
On top of those, Harlin presents a Nazi officer shooting a girl in the head and a pack of hyenas ravenously tearing a screaming boy to pieces.
This is not horror. It’s sadism.
Someone please send for an exorcist to cast Harlin out of Hollywood.