Kill Me

The 'Exorcist' prequel makes one want to vomit green slime

A couple of years ago, the geniuses over at Warner Brothers got the bright idea of milking some more money out of their Exorcist franchise. They'd already churned out two unsuccessful sequels, so, in a George Lucas moment, they decided to make a prequel.

At some point, they made what would seem to be two very good decisions: They hired Paul Schrader to write and direct the film, and Stellan Skarsgaard to star in it. And then, the planet Earth being a world wherein events follow by logical happenstance from previous events, the film was made.

And then, this being Hollywood, wherein logical happenstance is subverted by focus groups, Warner Brothers decided that this film by a celebrated screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull) and director (Hardcore, Affliction, Comfort of Strangers) was not good enough, and so they started again with a new director.

Seeing as Schrader made Autofocus, one of last year's best and creepiest films, and he's beloved by horror aficionados for his Cat People remake, who could they get who would be even better?

Of course, the immediate choice was Renny Harlin, auteur of the franchise-destroying Nightmare on Elm Street 4, the career-ending Adventures of Ford Fairlane and the worst pirate film ever made, Cutthroat Island.

This makes perfect sense when you think about it. See, the studio had spent $30 million on the Schrader film, and then they tossed $50 million at the Harlin version. Because, as every gambler knows, you should always throw good money after bad, and the more times you play, the more likely you are to win.

But the critical thinking skills over at Warner Brothers are notably sharp. For example, Skarsgaard, who is 53 years old, plays the younger self of the character Max Von Sydow played in the original Exorcist, back when Von Sydow was 44. Not just younger, mind you ... 20 years younger. Now, if they were gonna get an older guy to play the younger Max Von Sydow, why not just get Max Von Sydow to do it? He's older than he was, and, therefore, following the studio's logic, should be just right for playing his younger self.

But this is why I'm not a big studio executive.

Anyway, the real issue isn't how stupid the decisions were way up on the totem pole, but how good the final product is. So here's the tag line that should be appearing on the boxes of the DVD release of this film, which, I believe, is scheduled for some time next Thursday:

"Exorcist: The Beginning is a terrifying excursion into boredom! Frighteningly dull! If you sleep through only one movie this year, sleep through Exorcist: The Beginning!"

The story basically concerns a priest who's lost his faith (Skarsgaard), a doctor who's lost her husband (Izabella Scorupco) and a demon from hell who wants to infest the world with pure, unadulterated evil.

They all meet in Africa shortly after World War II, where some very old-fashioned movie stereotypes of Africans struggle with the white people over an old church that houses ancient relics, priceless documents and ... evil!

Skarsgaard, as the lapsed Father Merrin, has been hired to steal a demonic icon that can be used to justify budget deficits and unleash hordes of flesh-eating crows upon the corpses of the faithful and as a decorative element in a modern home or apartment. Meanwhile, other people want the icon, and some of them wind up vomiting green slime and turning into CGI monsters who climb up walls and desecrate graven images of Christ and other, like, bad stuff.

Of course, this causes Father Merrin to think about maybe turning back to his faith and uttering a bunch of magical words that will make the demon go away. Which, really, is not a good dramatic device. We've all seen the lapsed priest, and the whole magic incantations bit is way too deus ex machina, or maybe too deus ex some-stupid-book-of-rituals, for it to really be dramatically satisfying.

Skarsgaard, for his part, puts in a decent performance. He's always pretty good, whether he's doing an impossible combination of camp and complexity in a big-budget American film like King Arthur, or just laying low in an arty Danish avante garde number like Dogville or Dancer in the Dark.

The rest of the cast is not so hot, but then, they have nothing to work with. The awful screenplay commits the worst foul in writing: Characters utter expository dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot. If you want to see someone explain her backstory in the most artificial way possible, and then have that backstory have no bearing on what follows, this is the film for you.

The script is certainly the worst thing about this movie, and is enough in and of itself to sink the film. Harlin isn't a bad visual director, and the action sequences are reasonably well structured, but there's no particular reason to care about them.

Nor is there any particular reason to stay 'til the end of this film, since anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex and some experience in watching crappy movies should be able to guess what's going to happen after, oh, I don't know, the first 30 seconds or so wherein Father Merrin waxes artificial about his crisis of faith.

Supposedly, Warner Brothers will be releasing the Schrader version on DVD later this year. I'd love to see it, because it's hard to imagine what a film that's so bad it got swapped out for this one would look like.