EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING starts out with a priest (Matti Ristinen) in the African desert. He walks among the bodies of the dead, some fresh, some in advance stages of decay. Ravens - carrion birds - fly around and eat the dead. The priest suffers injuries and is horrified at the carnage. He spies an odd carved trinket and picks it off of a dead soldier. There is a flapping of wings and as he turns toward the sound, all behind him are the soldiers - no longer laying about on the ground, but all crucified, their bodies and crosses upside down in the sand.
Now we cut ahead to 1949 and Cairo, Egypt. A filthy white man in disarray drinks
and tolerates the dishonest badgering of a peasant boy. A well dressed
man named Semelier (Ben Cross: THE UNHOLY, DARK SHADOWS [TV-1990], HELLFIRE [TV]) comes up and says,
He snearfully addresses him as "Father Merrin." (Stellan Skarsgård: DEEP BLUE SEA)
"I'm not a Father anymore," he tells his visitor. Semelier has a proposition for him all the same. Deep in the Nairobi desert, archeologists have uncovered a 1,500 year old Catholic Church in seemingly perfect condition. Merrin tells his visitor that's impossible as there were no Catholic churches that deep into Africa 1,500 years ago.
"Nevertheless," Semelier says. "It exists."
He gives Merrin a stuffed envelope, payment for retrieving a specific artifact: An ancient gold inlaid puzzle box.
No, I mean, it is a statuette.
The next thing we know, Indiana - I mean - Merrin is cleaned up, shaved and well dressed, waiting outside the British Embassy. He watches a platoon of sharp dressed British soldiers smartly march past and he has disturbing visions of Nazis. His vision is interrupted by a page who tells him that Major Granville (Julian Wadham) is ready to see him. Once inside the Major's office, Merrin is disheveled and bears a day's growth of beard. Was the episode outside a part of Merrin's illusion? Impossible to say. Merrin, however, is not going alone on his journey, but must take a young Catholic Priest, Father Francis (James D'Arcy: THE CANTERVILLE GHOST [TV], CASE OF EVIL [TV]), with him. The Priest is on orders from Rome. The major is fulfilling a favored request, and the Brits want to get along with Rome.
Merrin arrives at the Nairobi campsite to find that the head archeologist, Bession, was the only person to have entered the church. Once inside, Bession went bananas and was shipped away to KooKoo hospital. The local tribesmen won't enter the church, though they will uncover it. Why they won't enter is because of a belief. They believe its evil. You see, this is not the first time the church has been discovered in recent times. The Catholics in Rome discovered it 50 years ago.
Merrin: "How many died?" Merrin says as he views a vast array of old graves.
Something about the graveyard bugs Merrin but he can't quite put his finger on it.
At the camp, Merrin meets up with the odorous and offensive Jefferies (Alan Ford: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, VENOM) and the lovely Doctor Sarah (Izabella Scorupco: GOLDENEYE, REIGN OF FIRE). It is here that Father Francis tells the excavation crew that Merrin is a priest of the Catholic church, though not a self-defrocked one. This brings the newly converted Christian tribesmen out of the wood-work like Emekwi (Eddie Osei) and his two sons.
Merrin, along with his tribal assistant, Chuma (Andre French: THE TAILOR OF PANAMA, DOCTOR SLEEP), eventually descends into the buried church. Father Francis follows close behind, and Merry Mishaps occur.
This movie has many plusses that are worth mentioning. First off, Caleb Carr and Alexi Hawley take a chess player's attitude toward their story in that all the characters are arranged before the tale gets underway. With sparse dialog and good acting, we come to know all the characters and their expected motivations.
Because this is directed by Renny Harlan (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, DEEP BLUE SEA), we know we'll get over the top, heavy handed action. The script often calls for subtle creeps and chills, but that's lost on Renny. As Harlan has shown in every movie he has ever directed, he's blind to nuance or light touch. Renny only knows one way to tell a tale from beginning to end and that's beating it with a sledge hammer. If he should ever be asked to "choose your weapon" at a sword fight, Renny will choose the dump truck.
That's not to say he doesn't try. Renny uses the time honored, well worn "homage" of doors that open and close by themselves; windows that are blown open by the wind; curtains in the wind (stumped on how to make a scary movie? The answer my friend, is curtains in the wind), and for that HELLRAISER spooky effect, an intravenous feed that backs up with billows of blood curling into the watery solution (why demons like to play with their food is beyond me). In fact, between an out of place spooky graveyard, and crosses that prefer to be upside down, Renny used just about every Horror movie trope except for the unexpected screeching cat jumping about: Though he accomplished the same effect with an unexpected screeching black bird.
On Renny's good side, he allowed the actors to develop their characters quickly, yet without feeling rushed. The movie never drags. It gets directly to the point. There are many points because the mystery of a Catholic Church in the middle of nowhere is answered by many more questions, each mystery having its own answer which will inevitably lead to a satisfying whole.
That's right, satisfying. The film is enjoyable, yet I find that no one really has anything to talk about after its over. Curiously, it leaves you with a junk-food feel. It was good while you ate it, but afterwards you wish you hadn't.
Then again, its a Morgan Creek Horror movie so what can you expect? They've never presented anything in the Horror Thriller genre except hammy and hyperbolic films. Witness their library of BATTLEFIELD EARTH, EXORCIST III, FREEJACK, GET CARTER , SOLDIER, and blech-cetera! They hired Renny because they knew there was no way in hell they could ever nurture a classic along the lines of the original THE EXORCIST, let alone recognize one when they saw it. So they played to their strong suit. They simply hired Renny to "make it gory". I know, gory isn't scary, but you gotta respect folks who take their mediocrity into account when doing business. Renny delivered said gore and, truth be told, the audience loved it. They shrieked, they jumped, they laughed at themselves (nervously) over how frightened they got. When I saw Cut Throat Island and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, audience members derisively tossed their drinks and popcorn at the screen, the movies were so bad. I never thought I'd see a Renny Harlan film where the audience would actually applaud at the end, and with EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, they did just that: damn rare thing!
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