Plot: What’s it about?
Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) was once a man of immense faith, a belief in the inherent good of mankind and a devotion to improving his world. But that was then and now, he is sure that he has witnessed the face of pure evil. Not in his nightmares or even in a supernatural event, but instead, the evil is within the people that surround him. In World War II, the people of his parish were abused, tortured, and even murdered, leaving him in a shattered state. Not just physically and emotionally either, the deepest wounds were spiritual, as he began to doubt his own beliefs. His faith in mankind has been trounced to reduced to nothing, while even his faith in God has been shaken and stands on the brink of extinction. In order to put the past in the distance, he travels to Kenya, as part of an archaeological expedition. In an incredible find on the expedition, an ancient church is discovered in perfect condition under the surface. Merrin is asked to venture within the church and find an ancient religious relic before it falls into the wrong hands, a task he agrees to undertake. But an evil lies within the church, one that has local laborers refusing to enter the site, sudden violence erupting in the local towns, and everyone on edge about what lurks within those walls. Now that he once again faces extreme atrocities, can Merrin confront the evil or will he be controlled by the church’s dark secret?
Perhaps no horror film left an impact on audiences like The Exorcist, though the sequels that followed never lived up to that level of performance. Now we have this film, which isn’t a sequel but a prequel, the story before the story we know and love. The production had some rough waters, with Paul Schrader removed as director even after he delivered a complete motion picture. His version was seen as not violent enough, so Renny Harlin was brought in to reshoot the movie. Almost all the material was refilmed from a revamped script, so what we see here is a total overhaul of Schrader’s version. The line in the sand was gore and violence, as Schrader wanted a more atmospheric, psychological experience, while Harlin was instructed to throw on the blood and violence, even if the story had to suffer. The end result is what the producers wanted, as the movie has a lot of blood and guts, but the story is crushed in the process. There is often no justification for the extreme violence and bloodshed, so instead of creating an atmosphere of fear, the movie just feels forced. The premise could yield a superior horror movie, but the focus is too much on blood, instead of atmosphere. I also think the second shoot was given fewer funds, as the special effects work is often less than impressive. I suppose horror fans will want to give this a rental, but let’s hope Schrader’s version gets released at some point, if just for the sake of comparison.
Video: How does it look?
The Exorcist: The Beginning is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. I had concerns about how this movie would look, since the visuals are bathed in darkness. As it stands, black levels seem a tad light at times and in this case, that’s bad news. The contrast remains solid and acceptable, but since this movie has so much darkness, its still quite obvious. The print is in excellent condition however, with zero grain evident and no sign of debris I could detect. I found colors to be muted, just as intended, though some hues come across in bold form at times. This still manages to be a great visual presentation, but it could have been better. I could just be spoiled by all the flawless transfers out there, however.
Audio: How does it sound?
The premise lends itself to immense tension and atmosphere, which are enhanced by the included Dolby Digital 5.1 option. The surrounds kick hard and often, even in more reserved sequences. But the gloves come off in the assorted tense sequences, which is when the surrounds get down to business. The speakers use power, range, and depth to put you in the middle of it all, with excellent results. I found the LFE use to be superb also, as it has some serious punch in numerous scenes. The cheap scares stand out to me, as the pops are loud and sure to pull you off the seat a few times. The dialogue is clean and clear also, with no volume balance problems to report. I was very surprised, but just as pleased to also find a DTS option on this release. As expected, the DTS track edges out the Dolby Digital counterpart in all aspects, with a more immersive and potent overall audio atmosphere, very impressive indeed. This disc also includes subtitles in English, Spanish, and French, just in case you might need those at some point.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The audio commentary track with director Renny Harlin could have been an instant classic, a look inside the events around this troubled production. In expected fashion, Harlin talks little about the controversial moves and instead, pats himself on the back. This is typical Harlin stuff, a lot of praise for his own work mixed in with some decent production stories. I hope when Schrader’s version is released, he is allowed to record his comments, as I am sure he will cut a little closer to the bone. This disc also includes a behind the scenes featurette, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer.