Thursday, November 1, 2012

I never meant to see: Exorcist: The Beginning

Well it looks like I'm just creating new periodic features on my blog left and right these days. I created a new one yesterday, and a Devil's Night screening last night inspired me to create another new one today.

This periodic series will be called "I Never Meant to See," and it will highlight films that were thrust into my path quite unwittingly. In an age when we have so much choice about what to watch that we rarely have to settle on something just because "it's the only thing on," it's become increasingly rare that we need to see things we hadn't otherwise planned to see. It seemed interesting to me to explore how we end up watching movies we wouldn't have normally sought out.

First up is Exorcist: The Beginning.

I love love love William Friedkin's The Exorcist, but I've never seen any other films in the Exorcist series and suspected there was really no reason to. Exorcist: The Beginning came my way because I recently received it as a birthday present. A friend who also regularly reads my blog (hi!) gave me this and another DVD that I really hope he got out of the cheap bin (just because I hope he didn't spend too much money on me). The other DVD, Traffic, was, I believe, the serious half of the gift -- an excellent film I have probably praised to him before, which he correctly surmised I did not already own. I don't want to sell Exorcist: The Beginning short by calling it the joke half of the gift, and he certainly didn't describe it as such after I opened the present. But let's just say this movie has less of a logical impulse behind it, given that he and I have rarely discussed horror, and I don't think we've ever talked about the original Exorcist and my love for it. Besides, it's directed by Renny Harlin, who has become something of a Joel Schumacher-style punching bag in cinematic circles.

I hope my friend isn't offended if I admit that I decided to watch it while carving my jack o'lantern last night. Hey, what can I say, multi-tasking is a part of our everyday lives these days. Even with movies I'm really loving, I pause them regularly and sometimes do other things. I knew it would make an ideal companion to my exercise -- something that would fit the Halloween theme perfectly, but would probably also be okay only to be receiving 87% of my attention at any given moment.

I remembered that there had been an Exorcist: The Beginning, but so little was it still on my radar that I couldn't remember how recently it was released. It could have been anywhere from 2002 to 2008, I figured. The release date was not immediately evident from a cursory scanning of the box, so it wasn't until I started watching it and made a general assessment of the age of Stellan Skarsgard that I put it closer to 2002 than 2008. As it turns out, it's from 2004.

My first impression, and one that ended up lingering, is that the movie may owe more to Raiders of the Lost Ark than The Exorcist. In fact, I'll include an asterisk in my writing for every direct link to Raiders. The Beginning follows the story of Father Merrin, the character played by Max Von Sydow in Friedkin's movie, as a younger man who has strayed from the church. He's now an archeologist*, and is involved in a dig for a buried religious artifact* -- actually, a church that has no business being here as it dates to an era before Christianity was known in this region of Africa. He's no longer a priest as a result of events involving the Nazis* in World War II, which are revealed to us as we move along. People who enter this subterranean chamber* continue to have strange things happen to them, signs of possible devil possession. And in a climactic scene, he even tells a character "not to look at or listen to"* any of the devil's lies.

Sorry, by synopsizing the movie by only showing its Raiders connections, I didn't give you a very good synopsis.

For much of the running time, the movie is a lot less scary than it wants to be. Yes, there's some disturbing stuff -- in one memorable scene, an African woman gives birthday to a stillborn child that's basically a rotting baby corpse covered with worms. But there's also some stuff that's just plain ridiculous looking, like a child being attacked by digital hyenas that just don't cut it as organic parts of the environment. The problem really is that you feel a mounting impatience as you wait for what you know is coming -- a true devil possession that resembles, in some form, the possession of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. A variety of isolated and generally disconnected images of horror aren't really enough to sustain us in the meantime.

What turned the movie -- which is well executed in most respects -- from a mild thumbs down to a mild thumbs up is, in fact, the climactic devil possession requiring the exorcism. It gives us what we're expecting in terms of iconic imagery from The Exorcist, and here uses CG effectively to add to it. One of the scariest elements of The Exorcist is the devil's dialogue, not only the horrible and uncensored content, but the sound of that voice (or several voices) coming out of that body. The Beginning understands this part of what makes The Exorcist scary, and has a good amount of fun with it in the final 10-15 minutes.

More than anything, I'm glad I saw Exorcist: The Beginning for the same reason I wanted to create this new periodic feature on my blog. There sheer quantity of movies in existence means that many of them necessarily disappear into the ether unless we go out and grab them. And because I have a generally democratic concept of what I'll watch -- really, I'll watch almost anything -- sometimes it's nice to have random movies thrust back onto your radar, when they should have long ago been gone from it forever.

I mean, if I'm going to accomplish my stated yet admittedly impossible and also ridiculous goal of seeing every movie that's ever been made, I can't be forgetting about movies like Exorcist: The Beginning, now can I?

Happy Halloween everyone.

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