Screen Daily - March 21, 2005

Shrouded in controversy, almost buried at birth by its producers Morgan Creek (who commissioned an alternative version by Renny Harlin), Paul Schraderís Exorcist prequel is a far richer affair than its troubled production history might suggest. A notable improvement on Harlinís rushed job (released to mediocre business and largely damning reviews last year), this is a grown-up horror movie in which performance and character development matter just as much as the (admittedly often creaky) special effects.

Although the film has now secured a theatrical distributor (Dutch Filmworks) in the Benelux, its fate in North America is yet to be determined. Certainly the buzz surrounding its world premiere at the Brussels Fantasy Film Festival may yet prompt a roll-out on the big screen: Warner Bros is rumoured to be mulling over an initial three-city, 100-print release. Whatever happens, Schraderís Exorcist will soon appear on DVD, probably alongside Harlinís picture on two-disc special sets.

The film will certainly pique the curiosity of fans of the Exorcist films, for whether they like or loathe it, they will want to see it. Thanks to its unusual gestation, the project has acquired a certain novelty value: in making two very different movies on the identical subject, Morgan Creek has inadvertently provided a horror movie equivalent of Woody Allenís Melinda and Melinda, in which the same story is told twice - once as tragedy and once as farce.

With its tortured loner hero Father Merrin (Stellan SkarsgŚrd), this is also recognisably a Schrader film and will attract his admirers too. Its themes (alienation, guilt, violence, the struggle for faith) arenít so very different from those explored in such earlier Schrader works as Affliction and Light Sleeper.

Merrinís temptation by Satan, in which he is given the chance to re-live a key event in his life, also carries echoes of Schraderís screenplay for The Last Temptation Of Christ. One of the fascinations of the project is seeing an auteur struggling to leave his imprint on a horror movie franchise.

The set up here is well nigh identical to that of the Harlin picture (which used snippets of Schraderís footage as well as several of his original cast members, including Stellan SkarsgŚrd).

Merrin, tormented with guilt over his inability to stop a Nazi massacre in Holland in 1944, has left the priesthood. Itís 1947 and he is working as an archaeologist on a site in the Turkana district of north-west British East Africa. He is attracted to a beautiful young medic Rachel (Clara Bellar) and pestered by an idealistic young priest Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), who reminds him of himself before he lost his faith.

Schrader avoids much of the infantile bombast of Harlinís film. Rather than portray the war in heaven directly in a set-piece, he refers to it by showing Byzantine mosaics which depict Luciferís battle with the angels. These are found in an ancient church buried in the sand. As Merrin investigates the building, he discovers beneath it a Satanic crypt.

British soldiers try to loot the church, but, in doing so unleash the forces of evil. Itís at this point that the film diverges from the usual generic rules. The crippled village boy who is possessed, 15-year-old Cheche (played by pop star Billy Crawford) doesnít have any of the symptoms of Linda Blair in Friedkinís film. Thanks to Lucifer, he makes a miraculous recovery from illness and injury.

Cheche isnít the only one wrestling with his inner demons. Rachel is still traumatised by her time in a concentration camp. The well-meaning Major Granville (Julian Wadham) is horrified by his own capacity for violence. Merrin, meanwhile, agonises over whether evil is innate in human beings.

Schrader is alert to the political context. He deals deftly with the casual racism of the British soldiers and the tensions between the villagers and their colonial occupiers. There are dutiful nods to Friedkinís Exorcist as well as one or two more arcane references (for instance, Merrin framed in a doorway, marching away into the wilderness like John Wayneís character in Fordís The Searchers, or the British soldier shown decapitated in a tableau scene reminiscent of old renaissance paintings of John Baptist.)

Where the film stumbles is in its special effects. The CG-generated hyenas are laughable and there are moments, especially those depicting the possessed, gimlet-eyed Cheche which skirt close to self-parody. ("Donít ever touch me with that again, priest!" he growls in a deep, devilish bass at Father Francis when a crucifix is put on his forehead.)

Perhaps as a result of Morgan Creek cutting off funding, production values are variable. Ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaroís lighting wizardry is only fitfully in evidence here.

Nonetheless, the key set-pieces (the Nazi massacre which opens the film, the exorcism scene itself) are confidently and intelligently handled. SkarsgŚrd brings gravitas and pathos to his role as Merrin while Schrader tackles the material in his customary, full-blooded style. Though almost inevitably falling short of Friedkinís classic 1973 original, this prequel is an intriguing piece of work in its own right and surely deserves its belated chance to try to reach an audience.