Daily - March 21, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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.