IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Exorcist’ prequel bedeviled from the beginning

Three directors, $90 million dollars and a lot of bad luck
/ Source: The Associated Press

The backstory of “Exorcist: The Beginning” is enough to make your head spin.

Hollywood is fond of remakes, but this prequel — the fourth in the series of “Exorcist” films — was discarded and remade before it was even released.

The bedevilment doesn’t end there: Its original director died, its next director was fired, and its final director was struck by a car during the shoot. It changed casts, and its budget more than doubled.

Some joke about an “Exorcist” curse. But not Renny Harlin, the director of the prequel version headed to theaters Friday. He takes it seriously.

“It’s not very funny, if you think about it. I believe in it,” said the filmmaker, who was hit by the car during production. “I wouldn’t say that I’m very superstitious. But I believe in good and evil, and you have to be careful with those things.

Original, a hard act to followThe original “The Exorcist” is regarded as a modern classic. It was the story of a young girl possessed by an ancient demon. Two priests confront the entity — young Father Karras, who is losing his faith, and aging Father Merrin, whose clashes with evil have strengthened his spirit but weakened his body.

The movie was famous for scenes where the young girl projectile-vomits a green “pea soup” fluid and rotates her head 360 degrees. It became a blockbuster and — unusual for a horror movie — collected 10 Academy Award nominations, including best picture. It won best adapted screenplay and best sound.

Two lesser sequels followed: “Exorcist II: The Heretic” in 1977 with Richard Burton, and “The Exorcist III” in 1990 with George C. Scott.

Then in February 2001, Morgan Creek Productions announced it was casting for a prequel to the original story.

In the first movie, Max von Sydow played Merrin, the title’s aging exorcist who revealed that he had encountered the same demon during his time as a young missionary in Africa.

The “Exorcist” prequel, originally penned by “Terminator 2” co-screenwriter William Wisher Jr. and rewritten by “The Alienist” author Caleb Carr, would chronicle that early spiritual battle.

Director dilemmaJohn Frankenheimer, the director of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Black Sunday,” signed on to the movie in August 2001, and soon Liam Neeson was attached to play the young Merrin.

After nearly a year of preproduction work, Frankenheimer backed out of the film in June 2002 — just three months from the start of shooting. The ailing, 72-year-old filmmaker underwent surgery on his back and complications led to a stroke. He died almost a month later.

With no director, production was postponed two months. That cost the “Exorcist” prequel its star. Neeson quit the movie since the delay would interfere with his commitment to other movies.

Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and director of “Affliction” and “Auto Focus” took over from Frankenheimer. Although his worked tended to explore the dark and hidden intimacies of life, Schrader did have a cult-favorite with the erotic horror-thriller “Cat People” in 1982.

Stellan Skarsgard, whose credits included “Good Will Hunting” and “Deep Blue Sea,” stepped into the Merrin role. Skarsgard wasn’t as big a name, but he shared von Sydow’s Swedish background and looked more like him than Neeson.

Schrader's dark visionThings seemed to be back on track, and filming began in Morocco in late November 2002. Schrader says he inherited Frankenheimer and Carr’s approach to the story.

“The thought at that time was do more of a character piece about the young Merrin, and less of what we would refer to as spinning heads and the pea soup,” Schrader told The Associated Press. “There was almost no way to compete with ‘The Exorcist’ on a horror ground with all its imitators and parodies.”

The script by Carr and Wisher was more spooky than gross-out, according to Schrader, and contrasted the original movie, in which child actress Linda Blair became a disfigured ghoul during the possession.

“Carr had fashioned an African boy who was afflicted, who was deformed and became possessed, and as he was progressively possessed became perfected,” Schrader said. “I liked that idea, but it did effectively remove the engine from the horror vehicle. You no longer had a poor pathetic thing being tortured.”

Schrader had finished everything but the music when he turned over his final cut of the movie to Morgan Creek Productions chief James G. Robinson last year. The result did not go over well with the boss.

“In the end, he decided they should have made a more conventional horror film,” Schrader said.

Schrader found himself fired. And Morgan Creek had an all-but finished “Exorcist” prequel that it didn’t want. A series of directors were approached to shoot new scenes that might punch-up the scare factor.

Enter Renny HarlinHarlin, who made the horror movies “Deep Blue Sea” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master,” had a longshot proposal: re-shoot Schrader’s entire movie, replace some actors, drop characters and revise the plot.

That didn’t go over well, either. At least, not right away.

“They said, ‘See you later!’ And I thought I was home-free,” Harlin said. “So I went home and started relaxing and all the sudden I got a call and they said, ‘We really thought about your idea of redoing the whole movie and that’s a really great idea. Let’s do it.”’

Counting the $35 million that Schrader had already spent, Harlin’s remake pushed the total cost reportedly north of $90 million.

While most of the other actors were replaced, Skarsgard kept the Merrin role — but he changed his approach.

“The first one we did was more of a psychological thriller, basically about a man in crisis,” Skarsgard told the AP. “For the Renny Harlin movie...I changed the performance, I even changed the makeup actually. You have to adapt to the material and the kind of film you’re doing. I think I went much darker in the Schrader version.”

Shortly after starting the movie from scratch, Harlin was struck by a car in Rome and his leg was pulverized. He spent the remainder of the shoot on crutches nursing crushed bones that are still held together by 14 metal pins.

He walked the red carpet at Wednesday’s premiere for “Exorcist: The Beginning,” but the injury still pains him.

The movie, meanwhile, did not screen for critics. Harlin said it was only finished a few days ago, but such a block on reviews is regarded as a studio’s show of no-confidence in a picture.

Whether fans prefer Schrader’s more cerebral version or Harlin’s scarier take may be decided on home video. Both films will likely turn up on the DVD in the coming months.

Schrader wants his film to be seen, but is cynical about the combo DVD package.

“The reason my version will see the light of day, if it does, is not because of fan push, or any high motivations,” he said. “It’s just because there’s a buck to be made.”