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Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
Director: Renny Harlin

review by Steve Anderson

Sequels are risky. No, not to the studios - the studios scream "Known quantity!" every time a sequel script slips into their hot little hands and anticipate slightly diminished returns from the first. They know that if the original did well at the box office, the sequel, no matter how awful, will draw at least a big opening weekend take on the strength of its name alone. It's to the audience that sequels are risky. If the audience enjoyed the first one, they'll go to the second to see if it's as good as the first.

But Exorcist: The Beginning is a little different. It's set in an earlier era, and doesn't focus near as much on an actual exorcism as the first one did. But surprisingly, despite the fact that an actual exorcism doesn't take place until the last 20 minutes or so, it manages to exhibit comparable quality, making it almost as good as the first. And that's a real rarity nowadays.

What we have here is the story of Lancaster Merrin, priest-turned-archaeologist, sent to Cairo in 1949 to discover a rare artifact in the midst of an early Catholic church that not even the Vatican had much in the way of record of. Which should tell you, right there, something dire is wrong with this place; the Vatican not knowing about a church is like Domino's suddenly losing a franchise.

Merrin heads off to Cairo to find this rare artifact, an alarmingly familiar stone idol to those who've been keeping up with the series. He's assisted in this hunt by a baby-faced priest shanghaied from missionary work to make sure that the site's "religious aspects are respected." And when he gets there, all hell breaks loose. No pun intended.

Lancaster Merrin, played with varying degrees of quality by Stellan Skarsgard, wavers wildly between legendary warrior-priest and petulant, whiny head-case that spends more time ranting at God about the unfairness of it all than doing any actual good. While the story does provide reason why Merrin wavers so wildly, I found Skarsgard's performance a little on the spotty side. While he does an excellent job with the dynamic, aggressive, action hero Merrin, his portrayal of the conflicted, strained Merrin comes off as a live-action version of the character The Mole from South Park: The Movie. I waited for Merrin to glare up at the sky in a six-year-old's denied fury and call God a bitch.

The interesting thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is that it watches as though it were written and shot entirely in the 1980s, and then given the 'digital restoration' treatment similar to the Star Wars series. It depends heavily, probably too heavily, on conventions that were out of style in the late 1980s. Exorcist: The Beginning relies on such old horror movie standards as long walks through corridors to build suspense, sudden bursts of shocks after the slow tension-building moments, and the formerly always-popular dream sequences in which things that shouldn't happen do... and then are proven not to have happened at all. The digital additions, however, really augment the shocking moments - it shows the true power of computer graphics sequences in films. They aren't meant to carry a film alone, but rather meant to augment and improve a solid script and good acting. Computer graphics are a spice, not a side dish. Just take a look at the last 15 minutes and see for yourself if the CG additions haven't improved the picture. The ending is a real surprise, however. It's at once harrowing and strangely inspirational, and it does a magnificent job of coming full-circle. While there are no shocking twists to this ending, no last minute reappearing of our current movie bad guy of choice, the ending is solid and eminently satisfying.

So all in all, Exorcist: The Beginning has its low points, like the use of antiquated conventions and a runtime that's a bit too lengthy at an hour and 40-odd minutes. But it also has an ending of rare quality, a solid script, well-done acting, and a couple of good old fashioned really scary scenes. Exorcist: The Beginning is a movie that's better than average and is deserving of some small respect.
Exorcist The Beginning

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