It is doubtful that a worthy sequel to The Exorcist (1973) will ever be made, but that hasn’t stopped several filmmakers from trying.
The original film, directed by William Friedkin and based on a novel by William Peter Blatty, was in some ways more of a mood piece than a story. The demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl was less a conflict to be resolved than a hook on which to hang a thoughtful meditation on the tension between modern science, which reduces even life itself to matter and mechanics, and the more ancient belief in a spiritual realm beyond this life.
As Thomas Hibbs explains in his masterful book Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, the original film was also one of many that challenged the modern view that good and evil are meaningless concepts. The Exorcist confronted audiences with the fact that evil truly exists and cannot simply be explained away.
Admittedly, The Exorcist had some elements which, if pressed too hard, would have taken the story in the direction of pure hokum. And press too hard is, alas, exactly what the sequels have done.
John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), widely regarded as one of the dumbest movies ever made, got the first film wrong in practically every way. Among other things, it abandoned the first film’s brutally realistic depiction of modern medicine in favor of tacky sci-fi elements such as a mind-reading device that apparently consists of a couple headbands, a few wires, and a pulsing light bulb.
This was followed by The Exorcist III (1990), directed by Blatty and based on his 1983 novel Legion; it was little more than a serial-killer murder mystery in which possession became just another plot device.
And now there is Exorcist: The Beginning, which depicts Father Merrin’s first encounter with the demon that would go on to possess that 12-year-old girl. (Exorcist II: The Heretic already tried to fill in this back-story, but the less said about that film, the better.)
Exorcist: The Beginning was originally assigned to Paul Schrader, who graduated from Calvin College and has wrestled with his Christian upbringing in films as varied as The Last Temptation of Christ, which he wrote, and Hardcore, Light of Day and Touch, which he directed.
Schrader has said that he wanted to make a psychological, character-driven period drama, but the studio reportedly wanted more blood and gore, so it took the film out of his hands after he had finished it and hired Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) to re-make it, almost from scratch. And Harlin gives the studio what it wants right from the opening frames, as a Byzantine priest wanders through a computer-generated sixth-century battlefield strewn with corpses, severed body parts, and upside-down crosses.
The film then jumps to the 1940s, where we meet Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, in a role originally played by Max von Sydow). Merrin, a priest trained in archaeology, has lost his faith because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during their occupation of Holland, and he has fled his home in a vain attempt to get away from his memories. He is in Cairo when he is invited to lend his expertise to an unusual excavation in Kenya.
It turns out the British have discovered a 1,500-year-old church in a region where there shouldn’t be any. And the place just may be cursed: the head archaeologist has gone insane, hypnotized hyenas are attacking human children, pregnant women are giving birth to stillborn babies covered in maggots, tensions between the British soldiers and African tribesmen are beginning to boil over, and there’s a sandstorm on the horizon . . .
Yes, there’s an evil spirit out there somewhere. But whereas the first film concerned a very specific case of demonic possession and was based on extensive research into such phenomena, this new film has an epic sprawl that owes more to the cheesy apocalypticism of The Omen.
What’s more, until the final half-hour, the demonic possession itself barely registers; an African boy’s bed shakes violently every now and them, but after a while you begin to wonder why he hasn’t started spitting or vomiting or barking obscenities. The reason becomes clear when a certain plot twist comes along near the end of the film, but here, too, the moment feels like something borrowed from the Harry Potter films.
To be fair, Exorcist: The Beginning makes a few nice visual nods to the original film, and its references to World War II are actually very much in the spirit of the novel. The new film’s promotion of Christian ritual, belief, and submission to God over such occult practices as the reading of tarot cards is also quite commendable. But the film misses the point, when it reduces Merrin’s confrontation with the demon to a set of comic-book heroics.
In the first film, exorcism is presented as a stressful and prayerful activity requiring patience and diligence, and we are told that the exorcism Merrin performed in Africa some years ago took “months”; but in the new film, it’s all over in an evening of special effects. And so a story that began with a serious quest for spiritual meaning has been turned into yet another shallow, and sadistic, thrill machine.