Did the world really need a new Exorcist movie? Before answering that question, consider this: Does the world still need the old Exorcist movie? Sure, William Friedkin's 1973 original has retained its visceral shock; any film that uses a girl's body as the grounds for a battle between good and evil almost can't help but shock. And as a technical exercise, Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's bestseller remains impressive. The Exorcist's conception of evil, however, has had its banality revealed by all the TV airings, special-edition DVDs, and alternate-cut re-releases. Instead of exploiting human weakness, the devil sneaks around snatching souls at random. The problem of evil, by the film's reckoning, can be traced back to a bored bogeyman.
Still, by plopping an old-fashioned demon in the middle of a quiet American street, The Exorcist turned its philosophical crudity into a virtue. Putting the same beastie in the middle of an African desert in a buried church filled with upside-down crosses and sacrilegious clichés borrowed from heavy-metal album covers doesn't have quite the same effect. The new prequel Exorcist: The Beginning tries to make a go of it anyway. Set in 1949, it recounts an early struggle between Exorcist's demon and the character played by Max von Sydow in the original (and played here, with unnecessary gravity, by Stellan Skarsgård).
A priest turned archeologist, Skarsgård travels to the site of a long-buried church to investigate some strange happenings. Once there, he discovers a fawning young priest (James D'Arcy), a tarot-card-fiddling doctor (Isabella Scorupco), and a general eeriness that grows more pronounced as the church is unearthed. Their uneasiness eventually focuses on Remy Sweeney, a young African boy who seems to possess strange powers—among them the ability to emerge unharmed from the pack of poorly rendered CGI hyenas that kill his brother.
Exorcist: The Beginning has a long, tortured history. It began life as a project for the late John Frankenheimer. Paul Schrader later assumed directing duties, shooting a film that the production studio deemed unreleasable. As a result, the studio brought in Renny Harlin to film it again, after some major rewrites and key cast changes. A director of little depth but much skill, Harlin really only knows how to direct thrill-rides, and his mode doesn't suit the story. After reviving some Exorcist chestnuts—the bed that moves on its own! the door that slams without being touched!—the film gets possessed by the spirit of an assaultive summer blockbuster.
Call it X-orcist X-Treme. By all reports, Schrader's version emphasized psychological horror over shock and gore, and since he's proven himself perfectly capable of making a bad movie, the approach might not have played any better. But it probably would have added weight to a fairly tasteless Holocaust subplot, and it surely would have avoided a laughable late-film appearance by an actor decked out in what looks like a hastily assembled Linda Blair costume designed for a '70s theme party. There's no pea soup, but sketchy effects, cheap jolts, swirling cameras, and buckets of blood surround Exorcist: The Beginning with the potent aroma of cheese.