leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
In the annals of movies with troubled production histories, Paul Schrader's prequel to THE EXORCIST (1973) stands tall. Schrader, who inherited the project from ailing director John Frankenheimer, minus Frankenheimer's Father Lankester Merrin (Liam Neeson, who left with Frankenheimer), was later fired and his nearly completed film was shelved as insufficiently scary. A revised version was reshot by Renny Harlin as EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004) with a mix of original and new cast members, and Schrader's version languished until a screening at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film paved the way for limited U.S. theatrical release. The verdict: More thoughtful than Harlin's version, but hardly the invigorating mix of shocks and metaphysical horror needed to revitalize the EXORCIST franchise. 1947: Turkana, Kenya: Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), his faith shattered during the Nazi occupation of his native Holland, has reinvented himself as an archeological scholar and is supervising the excavation of a Byzantine church. The church is a puzzle whose holy statues look down to the floor rather than up to the heavens, and it appears to have been deliberately buried immediately upon completion. And why is it buried in the African desert, far from the farthest-flung Byzantine settlements? The Vatican takes an interest and sends idealistic young missionary Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) to keep an eye on the proceedings. But Father Francis' earnest proselytizing, combined with the casual racism of British peacekeepers and Merrin's devotion to a crippled youth (Filipino-American pop singer Billy Crawford) the local Derati villagers shun as cursed, create a combustible situation. The strange church's malevolent aura puts a flame to the tinder, and Merrin must confront a devious demon — the same one he'll meet again in Georgetown a quarter of a century later — who's transformed the outcast Derati youth into a sleekly androgynous tempter. Schrader privileges theological debate over shocks and was neither the ideal director for a franchise horror film nor as incomprehensible a choice as some suggested. But his film is ultimately most interesting as half of a compare-and-contrast exercise with Harlin's CGI-driven demonic smackdown. The serious explication is best left to film students in search of paper topics, but it's worth noting that Skarsgard's respective performances are significantly different (his air of exhaustion the second time out may not be acting, since he's rarely off screen in either version) and Mann's Father Francis seems touched by a holy madness that bypassed his replacement, James D'Arcy.