Variety review of Shrader's prequel - March 21, 2005
Two years after being shelved
by producing company Morgan Creek - and almost entirely reshot by Renny
Harlin as "Exorcist: The Beginning" - helmer Paul Schrader's "Exorcist:
The Prequel" finally emerges from its crypt: Result is hardly a
diabolical failure, if not quite a heavenly masterpiece. Schrader's
intelligent, quietly subversive pic emphasizes spiritual agony over
horror ecstasy, while paying occasional lip service to the need for
scares. Probably too talky and angsty for mainstream auds, this version
could claw some cash back, especially on ancillary, from the need-to-see
In Belgium, where it world preemed at the Brussels Intl. Fantasy
Festival March 18, pic will be theatrically released as "Paul Schrader's
Exorcist: The Original Prequel." Legal wrangling is still going on over
whether the movie will get any U.S. release, though title is likely to
remain that on print caught: "Exorcist: The Prequel."
Those familiar with Harlin's version, released by Warners last summer to
an $82 million worldwide gross split evenly between domestic and
foreign, will immediately recognize the broad span of the plot is much
the same, albeit with variations that crucially shift emphasis. Opening
scene set in 1944 Holland finds Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan
Skarsgard) forced by a Nazi officer (Antoine Kamerling, who like
Skarsgard and many of the supporting thesps, also appeared in Harlin's
version) to choose 10 of his flock to die, a trauma that shakes his
The first person the Nazi shoots in Schrader's pic is a grown woman,
whereas in Harlin's it's a cute, braided-hair moppet--which pretty much
sums up the difference in tone between the two.
Action jumps to 1947, Merrin, on "temporary sabbatical" from the
priesthood has become an archeologist in British East Africa (modern-day
Kenya, repped by Morocco) and has uncovered a mysterious 5th century
Byzantine church. Father Francis (Gabriel Mann; replaced by James D'Arcy
in the Harlin version) is assigned by the Catholic Church to keep an eye
on Merrin, while British officer Major Granville (Julian Wadham, also in
Harlin's version) keeps an eye on the restless native Turkana tribe.
Also living near the dig are doctor Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar), a
Holocaust survivor; Chuma (Andrew French), the translator-liaison
between the Turkana and the whites; and crippled teen Cheche
(Philippines-born popstar Billy Crawford), an outcast Merrin befriends.
As the crew digs deeper, it becomes clear the church was not intended
for worship but more as a consecrated plughole--to keep the evil in its
ancient crypt from escaping.
Unlike in Harlin's movie, where there's a twist at the end over exactly
who is possessed, here it's made clear early on that it's Cheche. As the
teen's limbs heal and skin clears, the film slyly reverses the
franchise's normal trajectory, which dictates that the stronger the
possession the more impasto the make-up job. By the end Cheche looks
like a creamy-complexioned little Buddha, sitting cross-legged in a
While the final reels make less theological sense and partly degenerate
into metronomic horror beats, pic's midsection is impressively meaty and
smart--with a dense feel to virtually every scene, as in Schrader's best
work like "American Gigolo," "Mishima" and "Light Sleeper."
Ever the film buff, Schrader even includes a surrealist homage to the
dream sequence in Hitchcock's "Spellbound." With its floating clocks and
bandaged figures, it's more unsettling than any of the CGI in the rest
of the movie.
Likewise, a note of authentic horror is rung when a whole schoolhouse of
innocents is slaughtered by Turkana tribesmen, a sequence absent from
the Harlin version. Woven throughout are extended arguments between
Merrin, Rachel and Father Francis about faith and the nature of evil
that play far better here--in a screenplay credited to William Wisher
and Caleb Carr--William in the more dumbed-down Harlin version. It's
worth noting, however, that some of the most memorable lines survived in
Alexi Hawley's rewrite for Harlin.
Though the movie is about demonic possession, the audience is reminded
of mankind's own capacity for evil, including Nazism and colonialism.
It's the kind of message that must have struck real horror into Morgan
Creek execs investing a reported $45 million into a franchise prequel.
Aside from the enormous success of William Friedkin's original pic, the
franchise has long held a B.O. curse, with poor performances by both
John Boorman's 1977 "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (1977) and the subsequent
"Exorcist III" (1990), by the original novel's author, William Peter
Blatty. Shortly before his death, John Frankenheimer was set to direct
this long-mooted prequel, with Liam Neeson as Father Merrin.
Morgan Creek's surprise decision to hire Schrader, for the first
franchise movie in his career, was both inspired and
"what-were-they-thinking?" insane. Schrader has delivered a 100% Paul
Schrader film, drenched in the spiritual and moral angst that's
watermarked his career from "Taxi Driver" (as a writer) to "Auto Focus"
(as a director).
As a drama about faith, infused with metaphor and doubt, film achieves
moments of real cinematic poetry. It's the horror-movie shocks that are
pic's least convincing component, especially given the ropy quality of
the CGI work.
Performances are good to excellent. As Merrin, Skarsgard is in much
better, more soulful form here than in the Harlin version, and some of
the supporting players who worked on both films get a chance to show off
real chops with better material. That's particularly the case with
Wadham, Kamerling and Ralph Brown as a racist sergeant-major (last ended
up mostly on the cutting-room floor in Harlin's version).
Mann shines as a more neurotic Father Francis than D'Arcy in Harlin's
version. On the distaff side, Bellar has a smaller but more complex part
than Izabella Scorupco did in the Harlin movie, and makes more of it.
Tech side has similar personnel overlaps and variations. Cinematographer
Vittorio Storaro, who shot both versions, downplays the drama here at
first with a naturalistic look and then builds to some extraordinarily
stylized, richly colored compositions. Production designer John
Graysmark's version of the devil's crypt is both more authentic and
creepier than the one in Harlin's version.