Going back to visit Father Merrin, the grim-faced priest played by Max von Sydow in 1973′s The Exorcist, in his younger days must have sounded like a good idea for a prequel. We would get to see the genesis of Merrin’s wary familiarity with Pazuzu, the troublesome demon who occupied Linda Blair and made pea-soup sales drop worldwide. The result as seen in theaters (I’ll explain that odd qualification in a minute) is like a slow-moving installment of the Mummy or Tomb Raider series, with the fortyish Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) poking around ancient ruins, stumbling across spooky sculptures, and encountering the most blatantly fake hyenas in the admittedly small history of fake movie hyenas.
Most of the movie feels nothing like an Exorcist film. There was an earlier version of this movie, directed by the brooding Paul Schrader, who delivered a cut reportedly short on action; Warner cast Schrader’s entire movie aside and hired Renny Harlin to start from scratch. Harlin can direct fun junk — I enjoyed The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea as well as his Nightmare on Elm Street chapter. But Exorcist: The Beginning is simply junk — ponderous junk. Straining for depth, it gives us a Merrin who has fallen from faith because of what he endured at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Since Merrin here comes off as a bleary-eyed Indiana Jones, his Holocaust flashback scenes play as if Steven Spielberg had gone mad and edited bits of Schindler’s List into Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Merrin is hired by a saturnine Frenchman (Ben Cross, apparently having learned nothing from his own bad religious horror film, The Unholy) to explore an old church apparently buried out in the African desert. Weird things are happening around the dig: the aforementioned hyenas, plus diggers who have seizures and a clock whose pendulum stops when Merrin is in the room, just like in the original film. Do we learn anything new about the demon Pazuzu here? Not really; the plot redefines “convoluted,” involving a Vatican cover-up (these new religious-schlock movies are nothing without Vatican cover-ups) and a presumably possessed African boy.
I’ve yet to catch the Schrader version (Dominion) on DVD, but I’d guess it’s more thoughtful than the Harlin version and less dependent on cheap scares attended by loud stings on the soundtrack. William Friedkin’s original film got some mileage out of cheap shock cuts, too, but he knew how to distribute them sparingly, sprinkling them across an otherwise neutral and naturalistic narrative. Here, the movie is always groaning or rumbling ominously, never establishing any normality that the demon’s presence can violate. It’s like a feature-length remake of the Iraq prologue in the original, which was a provocative and haunting bit of filmmaking before we even knew what was going on or what connection it had to demonic activity. But, unlike that prologue, this film has no mystery. It turns out, too, that Father Merrin himself is a character best left shadowy. Poor Stellan Skarsgård tries hard to reproduce von Sydow’s wheezy gravitas, but he’s stuck enacting the script’s psychotherapy.
Eventually, this Exorcist gets around to some exorcism — first in a laughable African ritual which involves leeches (where do they find leeches out there in the desert? At the local tackle shop?), then in an extended action finale in which Merrin faces off against a possessed person with the ability to leap from wall to wall and bend into computer-generated pretzels (“Bring back the fake hyenas,” I almost said at this point). If Pazuzu can give a person the power to do all this (not to mention crucifying people upside down and other fun hobbies), how come he couldn’t do all that for Linda Blair, who was confined to her bed by a few knotted sheets? The climax comes off like the end of a particularly lame Buffy season finale, with bodies thrown all around and Merrin literally stopping the demon in its speedy tracks with a well-aimed cross. Lest you think that Merrin is not a man of intellect, he’s also armed with a book of exorcist stuff, or, according to the cover, “Roman Rituals, Reserved Blessings, Etc.” I adore the “Etc.” Exorcism rituals, recipes, baseball stats, etc.