So the backstory on this movie is that it was made, then Warner Brothers saw it and decided that it was too cerebral and didn't have enough thrills, and wouldn't re-start their Exorcist franchise as they hoped. So they threw out the whole thing and hired Renny Harlin to make a new prequel that would have more action. He kept the setting and lead actor, Stellan Skarsgard, then went off in his own direction and made his OWN movie that sucked, Exorcist: The Beginning. Which truly was a piece of shit. So when you have a movie by Paul Schrader being thrown out for being too cerebral, obviously in some quarters it's going to get cachet for being too smart for the masses, and you start to think it might in fact be really good. But then a few months after the Harlin movie came out and flopped, Warners gave this one a small release, whereupon we could all discover that, actually, this version really DOES suck. So there you go, millions spent, two films made by two vastly different directors, and two movies that each suck in their own special way.
So we open in 1944 in some Nazi-occupied territory, where they are experiencing that kind of movie snow that floats upward and sideways, but does not fall down, you know, like SNOW. Skargard is on hand as young Father Merrin, and he's facing one of those movie Nazis who just loves to kill, Kill, KILL! The Nazi demands that Merrin tell him which of the assembled peasants did some minor crime, and when Merrin won't, he shoots one woman in the head, then the Nazi troops shoot ten townspeople. Okay, I know it is documented that Nazis did this kind of stuff, but they also probably did OTHER stuff too, right? I mean, they must have taken time away from indiscriminate killing in the most barbaric manner to go to the bathroom or something, right? Trim their nails? But not in the movies, if you see a Nazi, he is just scheming some way to sadistically kill people over nothing. Anyway, we are to understand that Merrin has some deep-seated guilt and trauma over this episode, although you'll probably actually forget all about it until it suddenly comes roaring back later.
So now it's 1947 and we're in British East Africa, where there's some mission or whatever and Merrin is hanging around working on some archaeological dig. There's this super-annoying young priest named Francis who Merrin is forced to take along, leading to numerous tedious theological discussions. They have found this temple that was buried right after it was built, the revealing of which coincides with a lot of spooky stuff happening, like bad CGI hyenas coming into the village, and this other crippled guy who has been exiled to the wilderness to come out of the woodwork. He is apparently played by this guy who is a Thai pop superstar, making his rather odd film debut. Also hanging around is Rachel, white doctor who runs the local hospital, which never seems to have any patients, and is the typical thing where she's so concerned about the natives and tries to do good work while also being hemmed in by custom and the hospital's low budget. It also must be noted that the woman who plays Rachel has a few challenges in the acting department, making her every line clang like a stick on a metal garbage can.
So they pop open the temple and find a bunch of statues of angels with spears all pointed downward, as though the place was intended to keep something IN. Freaky, right? No? Not freaky? Well, you're right. Although you get to be amused by a bunch of faux-Romanesque paintings showing damnation, or whatever. Spooky stuff is still happening in town, what with a baby born with maggots all over it, and a cow suddenly turning carnivorous and eating one of the hyenas. I'd totally pay to see a movie about cows that turn carnivores and rampage a farm community. There are numerous tedious theological discussions, and Father Merrin is having bad dreams. The hospital takes in the crippled man, and they're all weirded out when he seems to be healing rapidly. Is it a miracle?
By now one is having that thought of "Jesus Christ, is anything ever going to HAPPEN in this movie?" And then you have to admit that stuff has been happening, it's all just unfolding in a way that simply has no impact, and proceeds in an extremely dull way. I blame Schrader and his wish to deliver a movie of quality, leading him unfortunately to end up with one that is just extremely boring. Anyway, some little plot is going to happen now, so let's tune back in. Oh but wait, one last thing: This is also one of those movies where everyone is intoning their lines in portentous whispers, meaning that you can't make out any of their lines. This is one of those movies where you end up shouting "could you please SPEAK UP?" at the screen.
So the British army is on hand, because this town is one of their colonies, and we have the requisite uptight commander who doesn't buy any of this ancient temple hoodoo. Two of his men decide that there's probably gold in that thar temple, and go in one night. They are found hung up and decapitated the next day, and the uptight commander assumes that one of the natives did it, calling them "savages," which we all know equals "bad guy." The natives blame the Christians for their problems, and it seems tension is brewing. We soon find Father Merrin in the middle of a scene that mirrors the whole Nazi prologue, and is meant to show how he has encountered the face of evil in many forms, each totally tedious.
SPOILERS > > >
So the former cripple now wants to be baptized--in the temple. The annoying young priest, whose every appearance on screen is enough to make you shout "Christ, just FUCK OFF," is on his high horse about saving people's souls or whatnot. It must be observed that every single character in this film is extremely annoying, to be as kind as we can possibly be, and devoid of any likable elements. They baptize the dude, which somehow allows Satan to fully possess him, leading him to toss the young priest across the room in an effect that is minimally convincing, to say the least. They later find the young priest stuck to a tree with arrows in him, which might be cause for celebration, only he's still alive, and still yammering on, only now in his uber-pained voice, which might make you wish they would just bludgeon him to death and put him out of our misery.
Now outside tensions are brewing between the natives and the British, illuminated by this poor CGI approximation of northern lights, which are never explained and look so lame one might surmise they were added later when Warners decided to throw this out in theaters, but refused to spend more than $4.23 on finishing the effects. Inside the church the posessee is now bald and levitating, and Rachel is there, and Merrin has his big fight to the death with the demon--which we are to understand is the same one he will face again in The Exorcist. You're sitting there wondering when this fight is REALLY going to get going when, poof! A flash of light and that demon is defeated. THAT was it? Wow, hardly seems like we needed some priestly superhero to accomplish that. Could have been handled by some theology intern, I should think. Anyway, after a little wrap-up, the whole thing finally ends.
< < < SPOILERS END
Oh dear, how terrible. As I said, I wanted to believe the line that it was simply too intelligent and subtle for the masses to comprehend, and even held out hope in the face of all the terrible reviews it received, but alas, the fact is it's just a stone-cold snore. Every single character here is phenomenally irritating. Despite all the portentousness, one has the impression that NOTHING is happening. The stakes are never really raised. Or at least in a way one cares about. And the whole thing is just plain boring. In retrospect, I have to say Good Call, Warner Brothers, because this would have killed your franchise faster than... say, the film you made to replace it did. Oh, and no need to compare the two versions to see what was retained from this version, unless you're super into really tedious exercises that yield no tangible rewards.
So yeah, a super-stinker. You have stayed away so far. Stay away some more.
Not unless you really need to see every last demonic possession movie.