Together again for the first time: “Exorcist” prequel shows the franchise past its expiration date

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies. Growing up in a family and a small town that buried all the bad stuff under silence, politeness and euphemism, I took guilty pleasure in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring all the pillars of community to death. Scared me, too, but deep down, I confess I was primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves and aliens broke all the rules. What delight when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!

The Beginning"?
Father Merinn facing his demons in "Exorcist: The Beginning"?

But even if her Peter Pan’s one of the beautiful and damned Lost Boys (1987), Wendy must grow up. And growing up means learning how few movie-monsters wear anything like the real face of evil. That’s because the most toxic spillage of evil, as Hannah Arendt tellingly observed, is often everyday, slow, banal, gray — so humdrum it’s the rule, not the exception. How can a movie express such an unremarked blight?

Exorcist: The Beginning reminds one, with a vengeance, that most mainstream films don’t tackle Arendt’s brand of evil — and the kind they do take on is generally silly, phantasms born of infantile imaginations. By their very nature, movies aim to make moral-ethical states visible, shaping the inner journey into palpable adventure. That’s especially true of American films, designed primarily for entertainment rather than epiphany.

Horrorshows like this prequel to 1973’s genuinely scary The Exorcist have become ever more literal and physical, dominated by a Grand Guignol fascination with the myriad ways the human body can be mutilated.

In the notoriously long-lived slasher cycle, barely differentiated human meat was ingeniously slaughtered by hockey-masked, switchblade-fingered demons. And there’s been a rash of pseudo-metaphysical fictions that threaten the rebirth of the devil through the womb of some hapless innocent. Standing against such foulness is, often, a discredited priest old-fashioned enough to believe that within comfortable metaphor lurks a Lucifer in the flesh.

Mel Gibson’s Christ was tempted by a very corporeal devil, androgynously offering unspeakable pleasure; and the spectacle of Jesus’ long, agonizing death focuses on the utter destruction of the fleshly form God wears as Man. How might Christ’s Passion be imagined on film, if it were primarily spiritual, a man wrestling with his own doubts, fears, dreams of a less exalted fate? That’s the provocative approach Martin Scorsese took in The Last Temptation of Christ, considered heresy by fundamentalist Christians.

Interestingly, Exorcist: The Beginning was first directed by Paul Schrader (director of Affliction and Auto Focus, screenwriter of Last Temptation, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), a filmmaker with a gift for ferreting out the seepage of evil in mundane human experience. What was James Coburn’s awful father in Affliction but a devil on earth, withering every good within range? And talk about banality of evil: Auto Focus showed a TV star falling into addiction with the way mediated reality can magnify and intensify even the basest, tritest life.

Just add a sexy woman doctor (Izabella Scorupco)
Renny Harlin's horror fix-it: add a sexy woman doctor (Izabella Scorupco)

Schrader apparently applied his existential smarts to the early backstory of Father Lancaster Merrin, the hero-priest of the original Exorcist (where he was played by Max von Sydow). And the suits were not pleased. Where was the “bloody violence” they had ordered up? Where was the sex?

So, out with Schrader and in with Renny Harlin, director of the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street, Die Hard 2 and other works replete with highly desirable “bloody violence.” Harlin reshot much, then all, of the film, added a sexy woman doctor (Izabella Scorupco) to tempt the unfrocked Merrin (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd) and piled up a suits-satisfying quotient of gore, guts, maggots and other assorted ugliness. The result: a bloody, boring mess.

After raising the curtain on a vision of hell — a vast (CGI-assisted) wasteland of corpses, supine and crucified — the film proper begins promisingly. A mysterious, rather sinister type (Ben Cross) meets with Merrin in a noisy, smoke-filled bar where the fallen priest, dirt embedded in the sweaty creases of his neck, knocks back one whiskey after another. Merrin’s hired to track down a valuable artifact at an African archaeological dig: a church where no Christian church, given its age, ought to be.

Everybody knows that exciting sense of being on the edge of story, about to set out on adventure — and Exorcist: The Beginning briefly arouses that tingle of possibility, evoking memories of B-movies from the ’30s and ’40s that effortlessly pulled you into the journey or quest from the get-go. Sadly, this trip dead-ends almost at once.

Possessed but unfazed
Possessed but unimpressed: "every iota of mystery or awe or imagination of evil goes flat"

Somehow, every iota of mystery or awe or imagination of evil goes flat. All the trappings of wickedness and horror are brought out for viewing: Merrin’s faith-shattering memories of being forced to choose which 10 of his parishioners should be executed by Nazis; the hideous experiments performed on the beautiful doctor in a concentration camp; a baby born infested with maggots; computer-generated hyenas tearing a child to pieces; ravens plucking away a man’s flesh, down to the bone; lots of half-seen skitterings, shock-cuts and special demonic effects.

And none of it generates the slightest shiver of authentic pity or terror for a single second. There’s no resonance, no sense of significance, of soul-deep — or even skin-deep — sin or suffering. Every element of vileness is equal in weight to the next, so that the unfathomable horror of the Holocaust exists on the same scale as comic-book, CGI-assisted images of atrocity. Filmmaking like this is a form of moral and cinematic sociopathy.

I’m reminded of the tenor of this election year’s discourse: political ads and talkshow rants accuse both candidates of towering sin, casting each man as either savior or devil in a Manichean reading of American government. Welcome to a CGI-assisted monster-movie that trivializes the hopes and fears of citizens who can’t pay for medical treatment, whose sons serve in Iraq, who see retirement receding, who dream of those halcyon days before vengeful shadows haunted airports, holidays, landmarks. Anyone know a good exorcist?

Kathleen Murphy

[Editor’s note: the piece was written in 2004, during the last presidential election. In the author’s own words, it “sounds perfectly timely.”]

© 2004 Kathleen Murphy