It could be viewed as a minor miracle that "Exorcist: The Beginning" doesn't quite live down to expectations raised -- or lowered -- by near-deafening negative advance buzz. Indeed, given its notoriously troubled production history, third follow-up to William Friedkin's 1973 horror blockbuster earns points simply for not being bad enough to leave a stain on the screen.

It could be viewed as a minor miracle that “Exorcist: The Beginning” doesn’t quite live down to expectations raised — or lowered — by near-deafening negative advance buzz. Indeed, given its notoriously troubled production history, third follow-up to William Friedkin’s 1973 horror blockbuster earns points simply for not being bad enough to leave a stain on the screen. Unfortunately, this annoyingly disjointed shocker stumbles badly after promising early scenes, and quickly devolves into a chaotic blur of underdeveloped characters, illogical transitions and standard-issue scary-movie tropes. Although brand name should guarantee big opening-weekend b.o., drop-off will be quick and precipitous, with respectable homevid biz in store.

Designed as a prequel to events rendered in Friedkin’s film (and, before that, in William Peter Blatty’s enormously popular novel), “Exorcist: The Beginning” harkens back to a period when Father Lankester Merrin (portrayed as golden-ager in original pic by Max Von Sydow) took an extended sabbatical from the priesthood. Periodic flashbacks reveal that, during World War II in his native Holland, Merrin was forced to assist in an atrocity ordered by a Nazi commander. As a result, the conscience-wracked Merrin lost his faith and left the church.

After a visually striking and effectively portentous prologue, pic introduces Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) as a gone-to-seed layman and Oxford-trained archeologist whose post-war wanderings have led him to Cairo, circa 1949. Semelier (Ben Cross), a mysterious stranger who claims to work for “a private collector of rare antiquities,” offers Merrin a sizeable sum to visit a remote site in the Tirkana region of Kenya, where British archeologists have unearthed a Christian Byzantine church in pristine condition, a church, it should be noted, that inexplicably dates back to a time centuries before Christianity reached the region.

Semelier claims to be interested in finding an ancient relic hidden somewhere in the church. Merrin, despite his loss of faith, is more interested in learning why anyone built “a church where no church should be” in the first place. Merrin resents having to make the journey with an unwelcome traveling companion: Father Francis (James D’Arcy), an idealistic young cleric dispatched by the Vatican to oversee religious aspects of the excavation. (That’s what the guy claims, at least.) Once he arrives at the site, however, Merrin turns his attention to more pressing matters: Vandalized religious statuary in the unearthed church, rapacious packs of man-eating hyenas on the prowl, rising tensions between skittish natives and British troops. Even as he’s slowly drawn to Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco), a visiting physician with her own bad memories of wartime horrors, the disillusioned ex-priest can’t help noticing tell-tale indications of supernatural activity.

A bad situation turns much worse when Joseph (Remy Sweeney), a native youngster, starts to display signs of Satanic possession.

For the benefit of those who turned in late: “Exorcist: The Beginning” started out as a $40 million project directed by Paul Schrader (a replacement for John Frankenheimer, who died before filming began) from a script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher. After Schrader completed shooting, producer James G. Robinson reportedly viewed the rough cut and found it insufficiently scary. So Robinson hired helmer Renny Harlin to more or less start over from scratch, working from a revised script by Alexi Hawley while shooting the entire pic at Cinecitta Studios in Rome.

The new and allegedly improved version, which reportedly cost about $50 million, doesn’t list Schrader’s name anywhere in the titles, but Carr and Wisher get story credit. (A few location shots in Morocco are said to be the only traces visible here from the Schrader shoot.)

The end result is something far short of seamless, despite some intriguing bits and pieces and a genuinely exciting climax. Continuity is, at best, a sometime thing: Supporting players appear and disappear at random; character developments are announced rather than dramatized. After a reasonably coherent first act, pic proceeds in herky-jerky, start-and stop fashion, with precious little regard for narrative or emotional consistency.

Worse, Harlin can’t resist the temptation to include cheap scares and even cheaper thrills: At one point, Scorupco provides peek-a-boo nudity while taking a shower, then drapes herself in a towel before wandering down dark hallways in search of things going bump in the night.

Here and there, however, the film cleverly alludes to sights and situations from the first “Exorcist” – the makeup for a demon-infested character here vividly evokes look of Linda Blair’s bedeviled Regan MacNeil – which goes long way toward capturing at least some of the original’s pic’s creepy flavor. At least “Beginning” does something that both John Boorman’s cockamamie “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) and Blatty’s own ill-starred “Exorcist III” (1990) failed to do – it actually satisfies aud desire to see another successful exorcism of a demonically-possessed character.

As the younger Merrin, Skarsgard – who’s actually a decade older than Van Sydow was in ’74 – does a fine job of conveying the spirit of his predecessor’s performance while adding his own distinctive touches. Of particular note is Skarsgard’s body language: His Merrin may be disillusioned and despairing, but there’s usually a conspicuous purposefulness to his stride, almost a swagger. Maybe you have to appear that reflexively self-confident if you’re going to have any chance of beating the devil.

Scorupco is the standout among supporting players. D’Arcy doesn’t get much opportunity to make a compelling impression – it appears much of his part was left on the cutting room floor – but Cross make the absolute most of minimal screen time.

Color lensing by Vittorio Storaro (who also shot Schrader’s version) and production design by Stefano Ortolani enhance overall mood of primordial darkness descending on sunbaked wilds. Trevor Rabin’s music is very loud, and there is rather too much of it.

To see Variety’s review of Paul Schrader’s cut “Exorcist: The Prequel, click here.

Exorcist: The Beginning

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a James G. Robinson presentation of a Morgan Creek production. Produced by James G. Robinson. Executive producer, Guy McElwaine, David C. Robinson. Co-producer, Wayne Morris. Directed by Renny Harlin. Screenplay, Alexi Hawley; story, William Wisher, Caleb Carr, based on characters created by William Peter Blatty.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Vittorio Storaro; editor, Mark Goldblatt; music, Trevor Rabin; production designer, Stefano Ortolani; art director, Eugenio Ulissi; set decorator, Carlo Gervasi; costume designer, Luke Reichle; sound (Dolby SRD/SDDS/DTS), Michael C. Moore; supervising sound editor, Tom Bellfort, Harry Cohen; special effects supervisor, Danilo Bollettini; special makeup effects, Gary Tunnicliffe; assistant director, Bruce Franklin; second unit director, Antti(cq) J. Jokinen; second unit camera, Marco Carosi; casting, Pam Dixon. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Aug. 19, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Father Lankester Merrin - Stellan Skarsgard Father Francis - James D'Arcy Dr. Sarah Novack - Izabella Scorupco Joseph - Remy Sweeney Major Granville - Julian Wadham Chuma - Andrew French Sergeant Major - Ralph Brown Semelier - Ben Cross Father Gionetti - David Bradley

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