One of the more fascinating and notorious tales in recent cinema, "Exorcist: The Beginning" originally went into production with Paul Schrader at the helm. It was completed with Schrader at the helm. Then, there were debates between the director and the studio regarding the direction the film had taken. Schrader made what was apparently a psychological thriller. The studio wanted something more gory. This, unfortunately, brought to mind "Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows", was also turned into a gore-fest by the studio after they wanted something they thought scarier.
One would think that scenes would simply be re-shot, but no: the entire movie was re-done, with new director Renny Harlin ("Deep Blue Sea", "Cliffhanger") at the helm. So the studio was now absorbing the cost of two movies and only had one edition of the movie they were planning on releasing.
The film (both the original edition and Harlin's new edition) takes place in the late 40's and stars Stellan Skarsgard as former priest Merrin. Semelier (Ben Cross) is a collector, who has found what appears to be an ancient Christian church buried under the ground - and surprisingly well-preserved - in Kenya. It's an oddity, because Christianity didn't reach that part of the continent until years after. Once the church has been unearthed, strange things begin happening to the workers and the locals, many of whom flee. One of the few who seem to be on Merrin's side is the local doctor, played by Izabella Scorupco ("Goldeneye"). Merrin eventually finds the secrets behind the site, and that's when things get...well, hellish.
The film certainly isn't anything too terribly entertaining, but there were elements that I did like. Skarsgard's tired (who can blame the guy, after doing the same movie twice?), world-weary performance is compelling. Harlin's former efforts suggested that this would be more of a popcorn horror movie with flashy cuts, but the director actually seems fairly restrained this time around. He also has the talent of ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro behind him, and the two (along with production designer Stefano Maria Ortolani and others) create a fairly strong atmosphere and mood for the picture. There's a pretty good sense of dread, especially in the early part of the film.
There is the other side of things, however: the film uses CGI in several scenes and, I must say, it's up there with the worst CGI I've ever seen in a big-budget picture. There's some (at least they appear to be) hyenas early in the film that look remarkably lousy, for example. S The film's other issue was that it only hooked me in for so long - while the atmosphere and story were interesting for a little while, I began to lose interest after the halfway point, as the picture was building up to...not a whole lot. Furthermore, while Harlin's film does get some good creepy atmosphere going, it didn't succeed in really getting much in the way of scares. While there were a couple of good chills and some tension, the movie isn't all that scary.
While the movie isn't entirely successful and definitely doesn't hold up with the original, I didn't think it was quite the disaster the hype made it out to be.
Originally, there were discussions about both versions being released on DVD, which would have sold quite a few more DVDs, as film fans would likely be eager to see the differences between the versions. However, the only version that we get here is Harlin's. Given the fact that there doesn't seem to be any mention of the first edition of the film on this DVD, it's fairly doubtful that we'll ever see it.
VIDEO: "Exorcist: The Beginning" is presented by Warner Brothers in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality was exceptional. Sharpness and detail were excellent, as the picture maintained excellent detail and definition, with small object detail remaining superb throughout.
It's difficult to find anything to complain about here: the image seemed free of pixelation and print flaws, and edge enhancement was nowhere to be seen. The film's largely subdued color palette seemed accurately rendered here, as well.
SOUND: "Exorcist: The Beginning" is presented by Warner Brothers in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The inclusion of DTS is due to the fact that this is a Morgan Creek production, and Warner Brothers DVDs from this production company occasionally boast DTS soundtracks. Otherwise, Warner Brothers has not supported DTS, aside from a few titles years ago. Anyways, that aside, the soundtrack for "Exorcist: The Beginning" was actually very enjoyable.
Surrounds kicked in on several occasions, and those who can enable a rear back surround will find that it provides an even greater sense of envelopment. Surrounds were not aggressive and not consistently put to use, but they were employed a satisfactory amount, and brought effective ambience and sound effects to the table when they did. Audio quality was very good, as dialogue semeed clear and effects/music seemed crisp and well-recorded. Strong bass was often present, as well.
EXTRAS: There's an audio commentary with director Renny Harlin, a brief "making of" and the film's trailer.
Final Thoughts: "The Beginning" isn't a particularly good movie, and comparisons to the original will no doubt make it look even paler. However, Harlin's movie does have some positve aspects, such as impressive cinematography from Storaro and mostly strong atmosphere. It's an okay horror time-waster. Warner Brothers has released a nice DVD, with excellent audio/video quality and a few decent supplements. Maybe worth a rental for those interested.
The Film **