When a studio fires a man like Paul Schrader (director of Auto Focus and Affliction and a recurrent collaborator with Martin Scorsese) and replaces him with, say, Renny Harlin (director of The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea and a recurrent collaborator with Sylvester Stallone) it’s a pretty clear sign of what they’re after. That’s what Morgan Creek did with Exorcist: The Beginning, and, while I suspect they got what they wanted, I doubt audiences will share their satisfaction.
Harlin, though no great film stylist, does have a zip that can carry an audience along. When you’re doing 100 miles an hour down the interstate, who cares if a character’s motivation is undeveloped? The flip side is that with a quieter scene, one with more dialogue than explosions — and there are long passages of exposition at several points in this movie — he stops paying attention, and so does the audience. He can stage an action sequence that will make you pee your pants, but conversation is a mystery to him.
Harlin got lucky, though: Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd is his leading man. SkarsgÃ¥rd has done about a million plays, movies, and TV shows, but, as most were done in his native Sweden, he’s still not well-known to American audiences. Hopefully this film will help change that; at least then some good would come of it. SkarsgÃ¥rd chooses to play this material straight, and he does the best he can with it. Called upon to deliver a hokey speech, he squints, sets his jaw, and gets it over with as quickly and quietly as possible. He does his best work, though, when he’s not speaking, adding little grace notes like the pause he makes when moving in for a kiss.
SkarsgÃ¥rd plays Lankester Merrin, the priest played by Max von Sydow in the original film. This is fortunate casting; not only does SkarsgÃ¥rd have the right dramatic abilities, he’s a fair match for Von Sydow, also a Swede. When the film begins, it’s 1949, and exposure to the horrors of World War II has caused Merrin to lose his faith and leave the priesthood. What does one do with oneself after such a life-altering decision? Well, it seems that one becomes Indiana Jones. Who knew?
When we first see Merrin, he’s seated at a cafe in Cairo, in shirtsleeves and a fedora, missing only the leather jacket and the whip (later there’s even a naughty monkey). We don’t know who he is yet, but the outfit screams “relic hunter.” Sure enough, a man sits down at his table and tells him that he needs Merrin to recover an ancient clay figure of a demon. It seems a fifth-century church has been discovered in Africa, where there weren’t any Christians at the time. We know this is supposed to be spooky because spooky music plays in the background.
Soon he’s off to an archeological dig in Kenya, where he meets his driver/translator Chuma (Andrew French), a handsome young priest named Father Francis (James D’Arcy), an attractive blonde doctor named Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a grizzled old man named Jeffries (Alan Ford), and a band of African natives from an old Tarzan movie. There are also a couple of cute little boys who exist in order to be menaced (just as well, really; they can’t act anyway).
I haven’t the energy to recount the entire plot, but suffice to say that it involves moldy but unexamined imperialism; really fake-looking CGI hyenas, demon statues with snakes for genitals; self-mutilation and suicide; the Holocaust used casually, as window dressing; a rip-off of Sophie’s Choice; a rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs; portentous speeches; inexplicable menstruation; cannibal crows; the Roman emperor Justinian; pinned butterflies that come to life and wiggle around like Big Mouth Billy Bass; a possessed person with the exact same makeup and voice Linda Blair had in the first movie; and enough blood, flies, and maggots to redecorate every abattoir in the world.
And here we hit upon the biggest failing in the film: Harlin doesn’t know how to scare us, so he tries to make us sick. The gross-out is a lazy, uninventive replacement for the genuine scare. It’s also a trick that’s easily exhausted—you have to keep upping the ante. How do you nauseate a nation that regularly tunes in to watch people eat rotting animal genitalia on “Fear Factor?” Will a stillborn baby emerging from its mother’s womb already covered in maggots do it? How about a man whose face is covered in sores, some of which have maggots wriggling around inside? I have to envy Harlin’s maggot vendor. It’s not glamorous work, but it must be awfully lucrative, since pretty much everything you can imagine is eventually shown covered in the little buggers.
Still, what does it get us? The cast of maggots is repulsive but, unless you’re phobic, they aren’t really scary. The other attempts at scares, including four or five scenes where an object suddenly pops into frame accompanied by abrupt, thunderous music, make you jump, but there’s nothing sustained. It’s as if Harlin had never seen a horror movie but had been given a list of scare tactics and thrown them all in without understanding what they’re about. It’s clear that he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he shoots things in a way that make no sense, such as putting some moments in slow motion for absolutely no reason. The original film worked on audiences by taking an apple-cheeked little girl and turning her into a monster. Harlin thinks putting cute kids in peril will get him by, but these kids aren’t even especially likable. They seem a bit weird even before we suspect one of them might be possessed. The one real asset he has, SkarsgÃ¥rd, who makes us care about his character, is never really in danger. And the people who are in danger have very little definition outside that fact. So what, exactly, are we to care about? The movie tells us that the devil can get you because he knows what your weaknesses are. It’s too bad Harlin doesn’t.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Exorcist: The Beginning / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()