THE DEVIL MAKES THEM DO IT: A REVIEW OF ‘EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING’
– Michael Meade
On Christmas Eve 1973, the world of cinema horror was forever catapulted
to new and disturbing heights. Director William Friedkin, fresh off his Oscar win for “The French Connection”,
brought his considerable talent and street-tough filmic approach to the screen adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s
1971 bestselling book “The Exorcist”, and the results—a pitch-perfect fit of filmmaker and subject—shook
the foundations of cinematic fright. “The Exorcist” remains one of the most mind-numbingly scary films ever committed
to celluloid, and its impact can still be felt by many today, especially from the nightmares of those still haunted by it.
Of course, the money-makers in Hollywood know this well, and they
are determined to milk it for every last dollar. And after the flop of its initial sequel, 1976’s “Exorcist II:
The Heretic” directed by John Boorman, the Powers-That-Be realized that any money to be made from this venture had to
be done independent of any film “artist”. Thus, their greedy little hands have been driving this haunting tale
of demonic possession into the ground ever since.
Granted, Boorman’s sequel was a mess, but it’s a glorious
one. Full of spectacularly lurid scenes of flying locusts, sexy demons lurking in an abandoned Georgetown house, ESP mind-synching
and a truly ludicrous performance by Richard Burton, “The Heretic” had guts, even if it failed miserably (actually,
the film does have its share of fans; none other than Martin Scorsese has gone on record saying that “Exorcist II”
is one of his favorite works of the Seventies).
Stung by the appalling failure of the Boorman film, the studios were
initially content in letting the story die. But in 1983, author William Peter Blatty resurrected the tale. His novel “Legion”
followed Lt. Kinderman, a character from the original story, as he struggles to solve a series of grisly murders patterned
after a dead serial killer. His trail leads to the exorcism that occurred in Georgetown, and a direct confrontation with the
demon that possessed Regan McNeil. The book went on to top the Best-Seller lists, and suddenly there was renewed interest
in demons and possession. So in 1989 Blatty himself brought the tale to the big screen, much to the delight of the studio
Looking for lightning to strike twice, the brass had high hopes.
After all, Blatty was the one who started it all, and if anyone could bring the flocks in, it was the man who cultivated the
story of “The Exorcist” into two bestselling books and a box-office champ. However, when they saw his initial
cut, their reaction was one of bewilderment. Why are there no exorcisms? No spinning heads or projectile vomiting? What is
this existentialist horror crap? Blatty argued that he was faithful to his novel, right down to bringing in Jason Miller as
the not-quite-dead Father Karras.
“But”, the studio said, “How can we call it ‘Exorcist
III’ when there is no exorcism in it?”
“Who said we were calling it ‘Exorcist III’? That’s
not the title”, Blatty retorted. “This film is called ‘Legion’, just like the novel.”
“No, no, no,” the studio explained. “You were signed
to make the third installment of ‘The Exorcist’.”
And thus it went.
In the end, Blatty was forced to add a pointless sub-story involving
a Father Morning, who has nothing to do with anything but has to somehow come in and save the day with a fire-and-brimstone
exorcism. So in the end you have two thirds of a very good and genuinely creepy spiritual horror film with a ridiculously
over-the-top ending that means nothing, does nothing to advance the well-crafted story, but by golly sports one hell of an
exorcism, complete with slithering snakes and a dancing chorus of demons.
And the title of this compromised film? Well, “The Exorcist
III” of course.
Which brings us to the forth installment, “Exorcist: The Beginning”.
Written in part by Caleb Carr, author of the novel “The Alienist”,
“Exorcist: The Beginning” involves the early years of Father Merrin, the elderly exorcist of the 1973 original.
In this prequel, Merrin is a disillusioned Cleric who has abandoned Christ after his first-hand witnessing of the horrors
of evil, here in the form of the advancing Nazi Regime who used him as a pawn in their sadistic games. Now a layman, he is
hired by a mysterious faction of the Church to explore the recently uncovered ruins of a Catholic cathedral, inexplicitly
built thousands of years before Christ. This leads to his first encounter with the demon Pizuzu, the bugger who went
on to possess poor little Regan years later.
Originally, the film was to be directed by the great John Frankenheimer,
the master behind such classic films as the original “Manchurian Candidate” and the creepy Rock Hudson vehicle
“Seconds”. Frankenheimer had success following Friedkin’s lead with his rambunctious sequel to “The
French Connection”, so hopes were high. However, this pairing of director and project was not to be. Shortly before
filming, Frankenheimer had to be admitted into the hospital, which led to his unfortunate death. Undeterred, the studio brass
(in this case Morgan Creek, which bought the Exorcist franchise from Warner Bros. and William Peter Blatty) actually had a
rare creative idea: let’s bring in Paul Schrader to helm it. Schrader has an interesting religious background: the product
of a strict Dutch Calvinist upbringing, he was forbidden to see any films, and didn’t actually witness his first movie
until his 18th birthday. Escaping the confines of his Grand Rapids, Michigan homestead, Schrader relocated in Hollywood,
where he became the successful screenwriter of such gems as “Taxi Driver” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
As a filmmaker, his works of passion included “Hardcore”, the story of a strict religious man whose daughter has
disappeared into the world of pornography, and “Mishima”, a spiritual look at the haunted life of Japanese writer
Yukio Mishima. In a marriage of filmmaker and material, Schrader’s religion-scorched past and the spiritually challenged
world of “The Exorcist” seemed like an ideal match.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account the concerns of actual
When Schrader screened his nearly-finished cut of the film, the bigwigs
of Morgan Creek shuttered. It was the Blatty incident all over again: another film “artist” ruining any chance
of box-office returns by giving a passionate, soul-searching account of the nature of Evil.
Not taking any chances, Morgan Creek promptly fired Paul Schrader
and sought out a filmmaker without the inconvenience of a personal vision to jazz up the final product. They uncovered Renny
Harlin, the Finnish director-for-hire responsible for such mainstream romps as “Die Hard II” and “Deep Blue
Sea” (itself a rip-off of “Jaws”). Harlin proved to be an amiable replacement, discarding the philosophical
aspects of the tale for a more commercially-viable “homage” to the original shocks and grunts. Suddenly “Exorcist:
The Beginning” is a film filled with menacing computer-generated jackals, blood dripping in all the wrong places, desert
sandstorms a la the recent update of “The Mummy”, corpses dropped from above on cue to make the audience jump,
and more-than-enough references to Friedkin’s original for moviegoers to checklist. Clocks suddenly stopping for no
reason? Check. Menacing-looking Arabs in a foreign land banging on metal in unison? Check. A repugnant British drunkard getting
his comeuppance? Check. A possessed person resembling Linda Blair with a ghastly face saying unspeakably lewd things in a
coarse voice? Check. A horrific serpentine tongue from said possessed person? Check.
You get the picture.
Gone are truly tortured souls like Father Karras and Lieutenant Kinderman
struggling with the concept of Evil. In these days of the “With Us Or Against Us” philosophy-ethic, struggling
with one’s soul is being a sissy. Thus Merrin, while still tormented by his conscious from his past dealings, has been
relegated to the role of super hero, a Super-Priest-In-Waiting. His black-and-white antics—a surly disposition, his
refusal to call himself “Father” Merrin, a reluctance to speak of his tortured dealings with the Nazis—set
us up for his inevitable return to Faith. This is Hollywood Storytelling at its most basic. “Exorcist: The Beginning”
is chop-filled with disposable characters, grandstanding special effects (artificially generated by obvious CGI computer graphics),
menacing music cues telling us when to be scared, and strategically timed jolts that inevitably mean nothing.
Now, to be sure, there are ways of playing with clichés and still
making a work exciting. A case in point could be the television series “Rescue Me”, starring Denis Leary as a
tortured fire fighter. This show uses every cliché under the sun and still manages to be innovative and even moving
at times. Why? Because it has love for its characters and faith in its storytelling. An audience is willing to go with a tired
cliché if it is a means of expressing a person’s inner life, and if the character on the screen is someone we can identify.
Then the chestnut, tired and worn as it may be, becomes an extension of the character, not the reverse. Look at “Training
Day” with Denzel Washington, or Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out”, or any of Quentin Tarantino’s works.
But all that requires intelligence, a cinematic conscious, if you
will. Renny Harlin, though certainly an able and workmanlike filmmaker, does not possess such skills. He is a showman, no
more, no less. And this is exactly why he was hired. Perhaps one day he will get his calling from the cinematic gods and make
his masterpiece, but for now hokum such as “Exorcist: The Beginning” will be his forte.
Now there is talk that all is not lost and Paul Schrader’s
vision may yet reach the light of day: Morgan Creek has recently stated that they are planning on a DVD release for next year
of both the Schrader version and the Harlin version, perhaps as a double disc set. They even hinted at a brief theatrical
release of the Schrader film, which would be nice. But this is all speculative right now, and it really depends on the kind
of box-office the Harlin-conceived forth installment generates. If the money men sense that they have a dying franchise on
their hands, Schrader’s film could be buried forever.
Which would be a shame. Blatty’s passion-play tale of demons
and lost faith and the revelation of evil in a modern world deserves a better finale than computer-generated jackals and frights
handpicked from the accountant’s office.
MICHAEL MEADE is a published writer and poet. His work can
be found in “The Hand of Destiny” and “A Celebration of Poets”, as well as various online publications.
He lives in Queens, New York.
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