The original The Exorcist, released in 1973, directed by William Friedkin based on a magnificent best-selling book and screenplay by William Peter Blatty, was a revolutionary film, a terrifying and dramatically compelling story of demonic possession and of the battle between faith and doubt amid the manifold confusions of the modern age. The film has had its share of shabby sequels (Exorcists II and III), spawned an entire genre of demon-possession films (the best of which is The Omen trilogy), and been subject to endless comic spoofery in films and TV shows.
The original film features two priests — a young, wavering Fr. Karras and an elderly, strict Fr. Merrin — who use the ancient Catholic rite of exorcism to free a young girl from an invading spirit. Fr. Merrin is selected to lead the exorcism because he has had previous experience with demonic possession.
The latest film in this industry is a predictably dull-witted prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning, which takes us back to Lankester Merrin's original battle with a demon. Some of the ground for this plot is prepared in the opening of the original film, which shows an aged Merrin discovering a small idol of the demon, Pazuzu, during an archaeological dig in Iraq. The discovery triggers in Merrin simultaneously an almost paralyzing memory and an anticipation of a new battle to come.
The best and most frightening scenes in the prequel fill in the background of this plot line and draw heavily upon the iconography of the demon Pazuzu. In the years immediately after WWII, Lankester Merrin has been called in to work on the excavation of the ruins of an ancient church, the grounds of which have been associated in local lore with a series of grisly atrocities. As Merrin enters the underground building, he thinks he's entered a primitive Christian church, replete with statues of angels arrayed in armor. But Merrin notices a peculiar feature of the armor: spears pointing down instead of up. Then he discovers an upside-down cross, a blasphemous inversion of the Crucifixion. In the same building, he finds a large statue of the demon Pazuzu.
But the Merrin of this film (played by Stellan Skarsgard), although an ordained priest, has no interest in spiritual warfare. He regards both the devil and God as superstitions. He has lost his faith and abandoned his priesthood. In its promising focus on a character of lapsed faith, the prequel resembles the original. Both versions find their point of contact with modern audiences in the dilemma of their central characters, doubting priests. An early scene from Friedkin's original has Fr. Karras, the Jesuit psychiatrist who examines Regan (Linda Blair), confessing to a fellow priest that he thinks he has lost his faith. In this film, Lankester Merrin is sure that he has lost his faith; in fact, he seems to have consciously repudiated it. He states at one point, "I believe in nothing."
But that is not quite true: He is no empty-headed nihilist. His memory overflows with images of terrifying evil, deeds in which he was in some measure complicit. In repeated flashbacks — here the film is heavy-handed — we are shown a scene of a Nazi soldier executing a young girl in Fr. Merrin's presence. The Nazi taunts Merrin, "God is not here today, priest." He then forces Merrin to select ten victims, a demand with which Merrin complies so that he can save the children from extermination.
Now, Merrin finds himself yet again in the midst of intractable powers of evil. We learn that the land is accursed: A plague 50 years ago was preceded by a massacre 1,500 years ago. Legends about the place are even deeper and darker than these events would indicate; an ancient tradition marks this as the spot where Satan landed when he fell to earth after being cast out of heaven. The Satanic shrine beneath the ground is a fitting complement to the diabolical happenings that hover around a young boy, Joseph. Early in the story, giant hyenas (awkward, computer-generated creatures) surround Joseph and his brother. They tear his brother to shreds of flesh but leave Joseph untouched. Later, Joseph's bed shakes violently and at least one individual in his orbit ends up slain in a stylized ritual.
In the midst of these strange happenings, the British army arrives on the scene to squash an uprising of the local Kenyans. The ongoing political battles enter awkwardly into the action with little explanatory introduction. Here the film misses an important opportunity. One of the remarkable achievements of the first film was its serious presentation of the alternatives to the Christian faith: primitive tribal religion and modern science and medicine. Exorcist: The Beginning offers something like these two extremes in the form of the incantations and rituals of the local Kenyan tribe and the bellicose spirit of modern warfare embodied in the British army.
From here the story sadly degenerates into a campy action film, with the demon doing gymnastic dismounts from the inverted cross and performing extended versions of the spider crawl, made famous in the scenes cut from the original The Exorcist but released in the revised version, The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen.
The mediocrity of the prequel is not surprising to anyone who has watched its troubled production period. Having written the script for Taxi Driver and directed Affliction and Auto Focus, Paul Schrader was an interesting and promising choice for this prequel. But the studio was reportedly disappointed that Schrader's version lacked Alien vs. Predator style violence and gore. So, the studio started over with mediocre action-film director Renny Harlin, of Die Hard 2 fame. The most positive thing that can be said about Harlin's film is that it leaves you wondering about Schrader's version, scheduled for DVD release in tandem with Harlin's version.
In the interim, it might be worth taking another look at the original film or, better yet, going directly to the master himself. Blatty's novel remains better crafted, more theologically satisfying, and more frightening than any of the films to which it has given rise. For a new generation of moviegoers, Blatty's book is now the version they have never encountered. It deserves a better fate.