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Studios 1, Acclaimed Writer/Director 0, Audiences: Screwed

by Aaron Pease

Demonic possession is making a comeback in Hollywood, Demonic possession is making a comeback in Hollywood, both benign (Tom Cruise possessing Katie Holmes's soul) and malignant (Mel Gibson snarling and contorting and railing against Jews and calling females "sugartits"...wait, what's that? He wasn?t possessed? Oh.). There's 2005's Exorcism of Emily Rose, the remake of The Omen, and also the Exorcist prequel that graced our box offices for two weeks about a year or so ago. Directed by Renny Harlin, Exorcist: The Beginning was actually a re-shoot of Paul Schrader's Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, the initially commissioned film that the studio Morgan Creek rejected.

While such movies are formulaic -- an innocent person starts to act crazy, parents and doctors think it's a disease, a priest thinks otherwise, parents and doctors begin to fear the worst, and then the priest goes after the demon, with mixed results. However, this formula has proven surprisingly effective-mainly due to the following four essential ingredients:
  1. Breathtaking, bloodcurdling, and/or vomit-inducing special effects
  2. A young priest and an old priest
  3. A scary demon
  4. A hot chick.
Plus a DOUBLE SECRET CONSPIRACY REASON, which can only be revealed later in this article, when the time is rite...ha ha ha ha! Get it! Rite! Not just funny, but also ominous!

Take a deep breath now, and calm down. Then, run the gamut from the original Exorcist to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and you will find all of these elements, except the young priest is sometimes missing. Because the young priest always buys it. If I were the young priest, I'd find a way to slip out too. Excuse yourself to use the can, then just keep going, man, and don't look back.

According to most critics, Exorcist: The Beginning is the Quintessence of Hackery, while Dominion is a fine movie that refuses to pander to the audience and deliver on the gore; instead it is an "intense meditation on evil." Paul Schrader is a critical darling, who not only wrote some of Scorsese's best films, but also directed such solid movies as American Gigolo, Affliction, and Auto Focus.

Renny Harlin's oeuvre, however, reads like the weekend programming for TNT's "Movies for Men Who Would Rather Watch NASCAR" -- Deep Blue Sea, Mindhunters, Cutthroat Island, Driven, the Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and yes, Die Hard 2 (Just like Die Hard 1, but in a snowy airport!)

Thanks to the miracle of DVD, Schrader's version is able to see the light of day and a comparison of the two can be made. In a counter-intuitive leap reminiscent of Paris Hilton's desire to go celibate (Free Straussian "esoteric" reading: She has genital herpes), I must assert that Renny Harlin's version of the Exorcist prequel is actually the better movie. Schrader may like to intensely meditate on evil, but he absolutely fails to deliver on any of the 4 criteria mentioned above, except for the Young Priest and the Old Priest, the furnishing of which is like shooting the young priest in a barrel.

The whole point of any Exorcist prequel is to show what made Father Merrin, the very old priest played by Max Von Sydow in the original, so dark and brooding. Both films reveal that Merrin -- played in both films by fellow Swede Stellan Skarsgard -- survived World War II in Nazi-occupied territory, but at a terrible cost. When the local villagers killed a German soldier, Merrin was forced by an SS Officer to choose 10 of them to be executed.

Four years later, the war is over, but Merrin doubts whether God exists, or if it even matters. He is sent to an archaeological dig in East Africa, where a Byzantine church from the 5th Century A.D. has been uncovered -- a time when neither the Romans nor the Byzantines had spread Christianity to that area. The church appears to be in pristine condition, and Merrin concludes that the church was buried just after it was built. As Merrin investigates the dig, an evil force starts to influence the lives of the people-the natives who live nearby, the British soldiers sent to guard the site, and the civilian Europeans either helping or exploiting the native peoples. From here the movies diverge in their treatment of demonic possession. Both ultimately fail, but Harlin's version comes much closer to preserving-and nearly advancing-the franchise along the lines of the criteria mentioned above.

Criteria 1: Breathtaking, spinecurdling, and/or vomit inducing special effects:

Here is Schrader's most miserable failure. He relies on such poor CGI effects, the only possible audience reaction is laughter -- such as the scene where cows feast on the flesh of hyenas. Neither the cows, nor the hyenas are real, and in fact you pretty much have to be told that what the cows are eating are indeed hyenas. In fact, the whole movie fails to portray a convincing-looking hyena. How's that for a movie set in Africa? Plus, when Merrin and his crew finally enter the recently buried church, light streams into the chapel through what appear to be unbroken windows...a very special effect indeed! Harlin does amp up the gore, but in ways that still manage to freak out. His hyenas drag a human being away after an agonizingly long attack. One of his characters proves adept at carving a Swastika into his chest. Bones break while native shamans try to exorcise the demon, which later in the movie hops around like an insect.

Criteria 2: A young priest and an old priest.

Even though both movies are about a younger Merrin, he is still the old about typecasting. In Schrader's movie the young priest is a fool, while in Harlin's he is merely ineffectual-beyond explaining some key plot points about the church's origin that Schrader never bothers to inform his audience of. Further, the young priest is there in both movies to get all of the key characters into the church at the same time, but at least we understand why in Harlin's version. Schrader handles this so clumsily, some of the characters get stuck outside the church for 3 days (Get it! Three days! Threeeee Dayyyyssss?!?) when the only thing interesting going on is inside the church!

Criteria 3: A scary demon.

I can tell you right now: Your. Exorcist. Movie. Will. Not. Work. If. The. Demon. Is. Androgynously. Attractive. It just will not. The demon has to be ugly. It's just the way things are. Guess which movie has the androgynous beauty? Plus, is a New York accent inherently scary? Because Schrader has the demon talk like a Brooklyn dockworker, and I did not find this to be scary. At all. Or, when the possessed boy rises up from the bed with yellow eyes and an evil grin, you think whoa! Something crazy evil is going to happen! Nope. He lays back down. That's it. And he wasn't even levitating! He bended at the waste! That demon has some great abs. Harlin's demon looks scary, acts scary, talks scary, and threatens to do scary/disgusting things. Horror Gold!

Criteria 4: A hot chick.

This is not that hard, people. If the audience doesn't want to screw her, then how can they imagine Father Merrin wanting to screw her? The lead actress in both movies is a concentration camp survivor who whored herself out during her captivity. Schrader's movie reveals this in a dismissive aside when it no longer matters, while Harlin at least lets her explain herself. The demon gets to her in both movies, but in Schrader's version all we see are the results -- while the demon worked her over, we the audience sat outside the church for three days with Merrin, doing pretty much nothing except wondering a) what was going on and b) why wasn't Schrader letting us see it.

Harlin uses an actress who was in a Bond movie, so that's a good start. She is still hot -- even better. And even other characters in the film desire her...not the case with our Schrader lady, who looks like she may have been crazy sexy once, but no longer.

And thus it goes. We haven't begun to truly describe the awfulness of Schrader's movie, which takes all the good parts out and puts in boring parts instead (see Merrin's crazy dream sequence, a Hitchcockian homage, according to Stephen Holden of the New York Times). Harlin delivers on some genuine suspense and revelatory gore. However, he mixes in some laughable effects (butterflies are super scary!) and also hinges a key plot twist on the withholding of knowledge that would have been revealed on Merrin's first day at the dig in any sane, normal universe. But in the most important aspect of an Exorcist/ism film, Harlin delivers, while Schrader not only fails, but compounds his error. And that leads us to the fifth most essential ingredient to an Exorcist/ism movie:

Criteria 5: Even when you win, you lose. In the original Exorcist, the demon was so powerful that it took Father Damien with him. In Exorcist III (a thoroughly underrated movie), there was a significant body count and the main character's best friend was killed. These movies are meant to convey that evil is pervasive, it is powerful, and ordinary men and women cannot resist it by themselves. Father Merrin knows this in the original Exorcist, and it is Harlin's and Schrader's job to tell us why.

Curiously, Schrader ends Dominion rather happily. Merrin has resolved his crisis of faith, he dispatched the demon, the possessed character is alive and recovering, and a battle between the British and the natives has been averted. As he bids goodbye to the former object of his attraction, she appears mightily confused that Merrin seems happy to be leaving her. Sure, a few kids got killed, but hey, that happens. Then one character tells Merrin that the demon will follow after Merrin, looking for another battle. Don't be such a downer, man, he's on his way to a priestly life in Rome! Because EuroDisney was not built yet.

Meanwhile, Harlin's movie ends forcing us to wonder if it was worth it. In the opening scene of his movie, we witness a lone priest struggling to find a pagan talisman, surrounded by thousands and thousands of dead and dying soldiers, many impaled with spears, many more crucified upside down in a mockery of Christ's death. This horrific scene is duplicated at movie's end; Merrin emerges from the church with one living soul, only to witness a scene of devastation and slaughter -- friend has killed friend and brother has killed brother. There is no one left but him and the character he saved. We know that the next time we see Merrin, he will still bear the scars of this incident.

Demonic possession is very rare, we are told, and no doubt one of the reasons is that human beings seem to be quite proficient in the evil department. Schrader provides us with an excellent example: the Nazis, who in the very first scene commit the most egregious act of evil in the whole movie. Doesn't Schrader realize that if the Nazis are worse than any East African demon, then there is no point in even taking the demon into account? But perhaps I am too hard on Schrader. He has indeed produced an intense meditation on evil, and he has indeed showed how Merrin was scarred forever-all in the first 10 minutes. If you want to see a film about the power of evil, then see Schrader's accomplished short film (I call it the "Reviewer's Cut"). But if you want to see a noble failure that at least tries to deliver, in a feature-length package, what you expect of a movie about demonic possession and Pure Evil(tm), then Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning is for you.

No demons were harmed in the writing of this article.

Aaron Pease grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, and lives now in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a co-founder and co-editor of Barrelhouse. He hopes to gain only enough celebrity to be on Dancing With The Stars and hip-gyrate the hell out of that dance floor.


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