Saturday, August 21, 2004

film: Exorcist: The Beginning

Exorcist The Beginning 4/5

A Christian church is discovered buried in Africa, about 1000 years before Christianity was supposed to have appeared in the area and it’s in pristine shape. On the inside are grisly images of the devil, suggesting that this is no ordinary church. The locals are terrified of the effort to unearth the church as some of them mysteriously die, disappear or go mad. Lancaster Merrin, an archeologist and a fallen priest, comes to check it out at the request of an enigmatic Brit, Semelier, an antiquities collector.

Haunted by his memories of the Nazis killing civilians and his forced role in the matter, Merrin gives up on God and decided to pursue archeology and drinking. What makes this film surprisingly enjoyable is the performance by Stellan Skarsgård as Merrin. He’s convincing as a former priest, privately fighting haunting memories of the war. We last saw him as a bad guy in King Arthur and as Captain Tupolev in The Hunt for Red October.

This film trades psychological intensity for gore and violence. It’s not really scary so much as it is a pederstrian romp through the catalogue of horror cliches. Some of the dialogue actually had the audience in stitches. Another director, Paul Schrader, made a version that relied less on carnage and more on tension, but it was deemed not commercial enough.

There are several scenes that don’t really make sense. Who would visit this very creepy church or dig up some graves, all alone, in the middle of the night? Some of the imagery borders on tasteless. There’s visuals of a young girl being shot in the head by a pistol. Put in the hands of a skilled director and such a scene becomes a powerful statement. In the hands of Renny Harlin, it’s as subtle as a sledgehammer and repeated showings don’t add depth. There’s lot of needless imagery strewn about just in case you didn’t wake up and realize that this is supposed to be a cool, scary film, man. Look for some well-placed leaches, maggots, a couple of suicides, claustrophobic crypts, death by Nazi pistol, cannibalistic birds, a wayward moth and some dreadful hyenas that stalk the priest but decide to snack on a young boy. What was missing? Just some guy who can change into a bat at will and say, “I vant to suck your blood!”

Despite all the bad points, I still enjoyed it and felt mildly entertained. It can’t compare to the first film but it does stand on its own as something horror fans will want to see.

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