The fourth installment in the Exorcist series once had great potential. At one point Liam Neeson signed on for the lead role. Then the legendary John Frankenheimer abandoned his director's chair a month before he died. Finally, indie director Paul Schrader (Affliction, Auto Focus) shot a complete version of the prequel only to be told it was not gory enough. He was fired and director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island) re-shot the film with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting) stepping into the role of Father Merrin, the younger version of Max Von Syndow's character from 1973's Exorcist. What results is a film that tries really hard to achieve the tense fright of the first but ends up feeling a lot more like its two sequels (1977's The Exorcist II: The Heretic and 1990's The Exorcist III).
Set in post-World War II Africa, Exorcist: The Beginning attempts to show the origins of the Exorcist mythology. Father Merrin, still shaken from his experience during the war, is sent to a small African village where weird things start occurring. Once he arrives, these weird things turn into obvious evil, and Merrin and his trusty sidekicks, doctor/love interest Sarah (Izabella Scorupco) and fellow priest Father Francis (James D'Arcy) have some work to do.
The main problem with Exorcist: The Beginning is that it takes itself way too seriously. The ill-conceived love story and "Nazis as Satan" metaphors are cliché-ridden and poorly executed. The film lost its right to respect when the producers fired Schrader and hired Renny "I was respected in 1988" Harlin, but it does work best when it's doing exactly what it set out to do: scare you. There are a few well-paced and quite gory sequences that are quite frightening and probably pleased the folks at Warner Brothers.
It is disappointing, because this film could have been so much more, but after 25 years of bad installments, maybe its time Warner Brothers found a new way to scare audiences. (Warner)