NOVEMBER 6, 2008
Any horror fan worth his salt knows that Exorcist: The Beginning was the result of possibly the largest studio reshoot in history, after Paul Schrader’s Dominion was rejected by the studio heads and Renny Harlin was brought in to “fix” it. His result was an almost entirely new film (apparently only 10% of Schrader’s footage was eligible to be re-used, and not all of it was), which drove the budget for the project as a whole up near 100 million dollars; which meant that in order for it to be worthwhile, the movie would have to outgross the original (not counting inflation). Needless to say, it didn’t.
But the irony is, it really isn’t as bad as you would expect, given its production history. It’s certainly better than The Heretic, and had the CGI not been among the worst ever seen in a movie, I would put it on par with III, with maybe a few extra points for being the only sequel in which an actual exorcism was part of the plot, not something shoehorned in for the hell of it.
That CGI though.... Christ. Stephen Sommers himself would probably be ashamed at some of the work here (incidentally, this film was released the same summer as the epitome of bad CGI: Sommers’ Van Helsing). It seems that nearly half the movie is generated; pretty much every non-human element (insects, hyenas, birds), blood, backgrounds... if it didn’t need to talk, it was made in a computer! This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the effects were actually GOOD, but they are pretty abysmal throughout, with even things like a shot of Stellan Skarsgard (pretty much the only leftover cast member from the original version) walking around in Rome looking impossibly and laughably fake. If not for A Sound Of Thunder, I would consider this movie the alpha and omega example for why CGI use should be limited to Spielberg and Bay (the only two directors who consistently use it correctly).
But from a storytelling point of view, it’s surprisingly... well, not good, but un-terrible. I expected a lot more inane gore and action from Harlin, so it was nice to see that the film was rather slow paced, like the original, and light on setpiece based filmmaking (at least until the final half hour). The “priest re-discovers his faith” story is hardly a new concept, but compared to yesterday’s abysmal hero priest movie (Shadows Light), it’s Oscar-worthy. I honestly think that it was the idea of Paul “Taxi Driver” Schrader being replaced with Renny “Cutthroat Island” Harlin that drove people insane more than anything. Hopefully I will get to Schrader’s version in the next few days; I would love to see how they compare in a back-to-back setting.
I also like the downer ending. When you have a prequel, you can’t kill the guy you know survives, so Alexi Hawley’s script has just about everyone else in the movie getting killed, including the female heroine. Speaking of her – she turns out to be the one that’s possessed by Pazuzu, an idea that never quite makes sense. There’s a little kid who’s obviously not himself throughout the whole movie, but in order to give the movie a trendy twist, it turns out that he’s OK. Then why was he acting so weird? Why did he let his brother die?
On that note though - you can’t really hate a movie in which a little kid is torn apart by hyenas (even if they are terrible CGI ones).
But otherwise, there’s nothing in the movie as insanely incoherent as the first sequel, nor is it as needlessly overwritten as III. The original is a masterpiece, but it’s also rather simple in terms of storytelling, something that the previous sequels apparently didn’t notice. Also, it FEELS more like an Exorcist followup than II or III did. III was admittedly a sequel to the book, so it doesn’t really follow plot points from the original (hence why Kinderman was suddenly Karras’ best friend), and Christ, I can’t even understand enough of II to know what exactly Pazuzu was trying to accomplish.
One thing it DOES follow is that like the others, it definitely has its own style and feel to it. It’s sort of like the Alien franchise in that way; everyone has their favorites, and the four films are different enough that there’s a film for pretty much every mood. Like, if I was at the New Bev, The Heretic would be the way to go, but when I’m home and feeling lazy, The Beginning would be my top choice. No film should be for everyone anyway, so kudos to everyone in the entire franchise (even Heretic’s crew) for putting their own stamp on things.
Harlin’s commentary is pretty terrible though; he completely ignores Schrader’s version and the reshooting, and just points out how much he likes the actors and such. He also talks about old vs. modern horror, but somehow I don’t think that the director of The Covenant makes for the best authority on the subject. There’s also a dull making of and the trailer, which has about as much footage from the first film as this one.
Hopefully, the Exorcist franchise will get its own tell-all book someday, a la "Crystal Lake Memories". It seems all four films were made under stressful situations, and as long as no one was holding back, it could very well be the most entertaining thing in the entire franchise. I’d even contribute a foreword, if they wish.
What say you?