A new chapter of evil
Silvio Jimenez Hernandez
Yemi Goodman Ajibade
Running Time: 114 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15
Country: United States
When ‘The Exorcist’ was putting many a viewer’s head in a spin back in 1973, with a few well-placed comments to the media its publicity-wise director William Friedkin stage-managed a rumour that the film’s production had been haunted by a demonic curse. There had been several accidents on set, actor Jack MacGowran (as well as relatives of both Max von Sydow and Linda Blair) had died shortly after the shoot was finished – nothing more sinister, really, than happens on any filmset, but still just enough to fuel the overimaginative superstitions of journalists and filmgoers alike. A far more real curse, however, was to be visited upon any sequel to ‘The Exorcist’ – for so perfect had been the blend of hard theology and even harder horror in the original, that any follow-up was doomed to a fate of accursed inferiority. ‘Exorcist II: the Heretic’ (1977) played a rather poor second fiddle to a devil who had already had all his best tunes – and while ‘The Exorcist III’ (1990) explored some interesting new ground, and was dignified by the presence of the late great George C. Scott, it still could not quite match the intellectual weight or the outright shock of the first film.
Now, more than three decades after ‘The Exorcist’ first insinuated its way into our impressionable souls, the prequel ‘Exorcist: the Beginning’ takes us right back to, er, the beginning. Building upon a throwaway line from the first film, in which the elderly priest Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) had alluded to an exorcism performed years earlier in Africa, ‘Exorcist: the Beginning’ tells the story of a much younger Merrin (played once again by a Swede, Stellan Skarsgård, even though Merrin is supposed to be Dutch) losing his Catholic faith amidst Nazi horrors in Holland, and then rediscovering it in a confrontation with an ancient demon in a deep, dark hole in deepest, darkest Africa, so that he becomes not just an exorcist but ‘The Exorcist’, complete, in our last glimpse of him here, with the hat, coat and briefcase that were so iconic in the original film.
‘Exorcist: the Beginning’ is full of respectful echoes of the first film, but what is perhaps more surprising is the way it interweaves these with the archaeological adventuring of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the pogrom atrocities of ‘Schindler’s List’, the colonials-versus-natives battles of ‘Zulu’ and the possessed soldiery of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. Director Renny Harlin is best known for his big dumb action flicks (‘Die Hard 2: Die Harder’, ‘Cliffhanger’, ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’) and occasional big dumb horror films (‘A Nightmare on Elm Street IV’ and the sublimely silly ‘Deep Blue Sea’), so the relative restraint that he shows here is miracle enough to see him beatified. Despite the CGI-enhanced battlefield tableaux which bookend the film, and the odd digitally-generated hyena, most of the effects here would not look out of place in 1973, the drama is largely restricted to an intimate circle of characters, and the theological preoccupations of the original have been preserved – albeit in a far more simplistic, less thoughtful form which, if taken at all seriously, lead to some uncomfortable ideological positions. If, for example, faith is all that is required to overcome evil, are we to infer that the Jewish victims of Nazism seen repeatedly in flashback would not have suffered if only they had been better Catholics? And what is one to make of the film’s crypto-racist suggestion that the source of all evil, and the site of Lucifer’s fall, is Africa?
Despite featuring many scenes in which characters try to see into the darkness ahead by the light of a flame, ‘Exorcist: the Beginning’ does not hold a candle to the original ‘The Exorcist’ – but it is for all that certainly not the worst of its sequels, and carves out its own niche by combining the Christian horror of the original with the cruelties and crassness of colonialism.
It's Got: Stunning chiaroscuro cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor); incredibly, every single scene (including those set in a Dutch parish, in Cairo, in Nairobi and in the Turkana region of Kenya) shot in Romes Cinecittà Studios; Sumerian demon (familiar from the first film); a buried Byzantine church, and other things buried with it; crows, butterflies, hyenas, and flies; a Vatican cover-up; a fallen priest (who gets back up again); flashbacks to Nazi atrocities; a possessed person cursing and blaspheming (but not with quite the same impact as in the original, where the possessed person was a young girl); and LOTS of inverted crosses.
It Needs: Greater subtlety.
Not the worst of the 'Exorcist' sequels – even if at times it plays like 'Father Merrin and the Temple of Doom'