Father Merrin's Story
Some priests perform exorcisms by choice; others have exorcisms thrust upon them. Such is the lot of Father Lankester Merrin, an intriguing character moviegoers first discovered over thirty years ago in The Exorcist, one of filmdom’s most popular horror movies. Fans who’ve been wondering how this courageous priest became an exorcism specialist finally have their answers in Exorcist: The Beginning, a prequel starring Stellan Skarsgard in the role originally played by Max von Sydow.
While not of the same fright caliber as The Exorcist -- which earned ten Oscar nominations back in 1973 -- this prequel contains some very scary scenes and a couple of big surprises. It also gives Skarsgard (The Glass House) a chance to deliver a moving performance as a disenchanted man of the cloth who must go through fire and brimstone before regaining his faith. Unfortunately, the film’s sound effects sometimes blast out so loudly they spoil what otherwise might be perfectly good scenes. Father Merrin puts down a lighted lamp. Whomp! He closes a door. Louder whomp! He opens a coffin. Loudest whomp of all!
Director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), brought on board to infuse the film with more action and thrills than presented in Paul Schrader’s version of the prequel, manages to create a hint of Indiana Jones-like atmosphere in several sequences showing archeologist Merrin (who, in 1949, says he’s no longer a priest) searching for a particular artifact in a buried African church. Surprisingly, the flashbacks depicting why Merrin lost his faith come across as the most frightening part of this horror movie. And those scenes of demonic possession? They may not be as vivid here as in The Exorcist (thank heavens there’s no pea soup), but they’re almost as disturbing.
Hyenas on a vicious rampage, mysterious graves, upside-down crucifixions, a baby's corpse crawling with worms, blood-soaked walls, a brutally maimed body, hideous drawings -- all enhance the scare factor of this eagerly-awaited prequel.
Although the movie belongs to Skarsgard, cast members Izabella Scorupco, James D’Arcy and Remy Sweeney are more than satisfactory in their supporting roles. Playing a concerned doctor Merrin can’t help being attracted to, Scorupco (Vertical Limit) projects an inner beauty that shines through her squalid surroundings during most of the film. D’Arcy (Master and Commander) endows Father Francis, an eager young priest on a special mission, with a provocative combination of innocence and wisdom. And Sweeney, a new child actor, tugs at our hearts with his wide-eyed observation of the terrifying events happening around him.
As I watched Skarsgard play a man struggling with his Catholic faith, I became more involved with that aspect of this film than with its special effects and horror elements. Here’s an actor who knows how to show compassion for others while expecting none for himself, who can express determination despite impossible odds, and who makes us believe the changes his character goes through as he deals with evil -- whether in the form of his own cynicism, the behavior of others, or demonic possession. Because of Skarsgard, I forgot about The Exorcist and concentrated on his mesmerizing interpretation of Lankester Merrin. It’s truly one of the year’s most haunting performances.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” for strong violence and gore, disturbing images and rituals, and for language including some sexual dialogue.)