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Exorcist: The Beginning (15)

Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: One

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with director Renny Harlin. Behind the scenes featurette. Theatrical trailer.

THE story behind the making of this Exorcist prequel is more interesting (and probably more scary) than what happens on-screen, given the history surrounding the project.

For instance, the film was originally to have been directed by veteran John Frankenheimer, who tragically died, only to capture the interest of Taxi Driver writer, Paul Schrader.

Liam Neeson then withdrew from the project, to be replaced by current star, Stellan Skarsgård.

Yet, just when it seemed that the film might be an interesting, character-driven affair, about one man's struggle with his faith, the studio got cold feet and replaced Schrader with action-director, Renny Harlin, who subsequently set about injecting more pace - and a lot more gore.

The result, as one might expect, is something of a botched job - a film that starts brightly, but which runs out of steam at around about the midway point.

It finds Skarsgård picking up the story of the young Father Lankester Merrin, the old priest played by Max von Sydow in the original, who eventually exorcised the devil from Linda Blair's demonic child.

Travelling back to a post-war Turkana, in Kenya, in 1949, The Beginning recounts the events surrounding Merrin's first encounter with the devil - which was only alluded to in William Peter Blatty's superior shocker.

When first we see him, Merrin is a borderline alcoholic, wrestling with his own loss of faith, that was prompted by his experiences of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Though sceptical, Merrin is intrigued to be asked to investigate the origins of a recently-discovered Byzantine church, buried in an old battlefield, which seems to have been placed over the top of a temple to Lucifer.

But when he arrives, evil already seems to be taking hold, and it isn't long before Merrin is asked to help purge the devil from a young boy, Joseph (Remy Sweeney), with the help of James D'Arcy's young Catholic priest and Izabella Scorupco's fellow Holocaust survivor, Dr Sarah Novack.

But while the film starts off slowly, taking the time to explore Merrin's fragile psychology and his refusal to believe in the presence of evil, it soon degenerates into a series of grisly confrontations and jump-in-the-dark moments - none of which really unsettle in the way that the 1973 original did.

Harlin seems to forgo subtlety in favour of easy shocks, loading the latter part of the film with blood-soaked images of the devil at work and rendering much of the ealier work pointless.

He also sacrifices logic in favour of a twist and reduces Satan to someone who resembles the sound of a backstreet, Cockney pimp at one stage.

So while the film looks terrific - thanks to Vittorio Storaro - and boasts a committed central performance from the ever-excellent
Skarsgård, too much is wrong with the rest of it to prevent the inevitable feeling of 'why did they bother?' from creeping in.

It remains to be seen whether Schrader's version will get the DVD release that is being suggested, or whether a somewhat lacklustre Box Office performance will deliver the last rites to the franchise.


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