Two years after being shelved by producing company Morgan Creek -- and almost entirely reshot by Renny Harlin as "Exorcist: The Beginning" -- helmer Paul Schrader's "Exorcist: The Prequel" finally emerges from its crypt: Result is hardly a diabolical failure, if not quite a heavenly masterpiece.

This review was corrected on March 23, 2005

Two years after being shelved by producing company Morgan Creek — and almost entirely reshot by Renny Harlin as “Exorcist: The Beginning” — helmer Paul Schrader’s “Exorcist: The Prequel” finally emerges from its crypt: Result is hardly a diabolical failure, if not quite a heavenly masterpiece. Schrader’s intelligent, quietly subversive pic emphasizes spiritual agony over horror ecstasy, while paying occasional lip-service to the need for scares. Probably too talky and angsty for mainstream auds, this version could claw some cash back, especially on ancillary, from the need-to-see factor alone.

In Belgium, where it world preemed at the Brussels Intl. Fantasy Festival March 18, pic will be theatrically released as “Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Original Prequel.” Legal wrangling is still going on over whether the movie will get any U.S. release, though title is likely to remain that on print caught: “Exorcist: The Prequel.”

Those familiar with Harlin’s version, released by Warners last summer to an $82 million worldwide gross split evenly between domestic and foreign, will immediately recognize the broad span of the plot is much the same, albeit with variations that crucially shift emphasis. Opening scene set in 1944 Holland finds Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) forced by a Nazi officer (Antoine Kamerling, who like Skarsgard and many of the supporting thesps, also appeared in Harlin’s version) to choose 10 of his flock to die, a trauma that shakes his faith.

The first person the Nazi shoots in Schrader’s pic is a grown woman, whereas in Harlin’s it’s a cute, braided-hair moppet — which pretty much sums up the difference in tone between the two.

Action jumps to 1947. Merrin, on “temporary sabbatical” from the priesthood, has become an archeologist in British East Africa (modern-day Kenya, repped by Morocco) and has uncovered a mysterious 5th century Byzantine church. Father Francis (Gabriel Mann; replaced by James D’Arcy in the Harlin version) is assigned by the Catholic Church to keep an eye on Merrin, while British officer Major Granville (Julian Wadham, also in Harlin’s version) keeps an eye on the restless native Turkana tribe.

Also living near the dig are doctor Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar), a Holocaust survivor; Chuma (Andrew French), the translator-liaison between the Turkana and the whites; and crippled teen Cheche (Philippines-born popstar Billy Crawford), an outcast Merrin befriends.

As the crew digs deeper, it becomes clear the church was not intended for worship but more as a consecrated plughole — to keep the evil in its ancient crypt from escaping.

Unlike in Harlin’s movie, where there’s a twist at the end over exactly who is possessed, here it’s made clear early on that it’s Cheche. As the teen’s limbs heal and skin clears, the film slyly reverses the franchise’s normal trajectory, which dictates that the stronger the possession the more impasto the make-up job. By the end, Cheche looks like a creamy-complexioned little Buddha, sitting cross-legged in a loincloth.

While the final reels make less theological sense and partly degenerate into metronomic horror beats, pic’s midsection is impressively meaty and smart — with a dense feel to virtually every scene, as in Schrader’s best work like “American Gigolo,” “Mishima” and “Light Sleeper.”

Ever the film buff, Schrader even includes a surrealist homage to the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” With its floating clocks and bandaged figures, it’s more unsettling than any of the CGI in the rest of the movie.

Likewise, a note of authentic horror is rung when a whole schoolhouse of innocents is slaughtered by Turkana tribesmen, a sequence absent from the Harlin version. Woven throughout are extended arguments between Merrin, Rachel and Father Francis about faith and the nature of evil which play far better here — in a screenplay credited to William Wisher and Caleb Carr — than in the more dumbed-down Harlin version. It’s worth noting, however, that some of the most memorable lines survived in Alexi Hawley’s rewrite for Harlin.

Though the movie is about demonic possession, the audience is reminded of mankind’s own capacity for evil, including Nazism and colonialism. It’s the kind of message that must have struck real horror into Morgan Creek execs investing a reported $45 million into a franchise prequel.

Aside from the enormous success of William Friedkin’s original pic, the franchise has long held a B.O. curse, with poor performances by both John Boorman’s 1977 “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) and the subsequent “Exorcist III” (1990), by the original novel’s author, William Peter Blatty. Shortly before his death, John Frankenheimer was set to direct this long-mooted prequel, with Liam Neeson as Father Merrin.

Morgan Creek’s surprise decision to hire Schrader, for the first franchise movie in his career, was both inspired and “what-were-they-thinking?” insane. Schrader has delivered a 100% Paul Schrader film, drenched in the spiritual and moral angst that’s watermarked his career from “Taxi Driver” (as a writer) to “Auto Focus” (as a director).

As a drama about faith, infused with metaphor and doubt, film achieves moments of real cinematic poetry. It’s the horror-movie shocks that are pic’s least convincing component, especially given the ropey quality of the CGI work.

Performances are good to excellent. As Merrin, Skarsgard is in much better, more soulful form here than in the Harlin version, and some of the supporting players who worked on both films get a chance to show off real chops with better material. That’s particularly the case with Wadham, Kamerling, and Ralph Brown as a racist sergeant-major (last ended up mostly on the cutting-room floor in Harlin’s version).

Mann shines as a more neurotic Father Francis than D’Arcy in Harlin’s version. On the distaff side, Bellar has a smaller but more complex part than Izabella Scorupco did in the Harlin movie, and makes more of it.

Tech side has similar personnel overlaps and variations. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shot both versions, downplays the drama here at first with a naturalistic look and then builds to some extraordinarily stylized, richly colored compositions. Production designer John Graysmark’s version of the devil’s crypt is both more authentic and creepier than the one in Harlin’s version.

To see Variety’s review of Renny Harlin’s cut, “Exorcist: The Beginning,” click here.

Exorcist: The Prequel

Production

A Morgan Creek, DFW Dutch Filmworks presentation of a Morgan Creek production. Produced by James G. Robinson. Executive producers, Guy McElwaine, David Robinson. Co-producers, Art Shaeffer, Wayne Morris. Directed by Paul Schrader. Screenplay, William Wisher, Caleb Carr.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Vittorio Storaro; editor, Tim Silano; music, Trevor Rabin, Angelo Badalamenti, Dog Fashion Disco; production designer, John Graysmark; supervising art director, Stefano Ortoliani; art directors, Marco Tretini (Morocco), Andy Nicholson (U.K.); costumes, Luke Reichle; sound supervisor (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Matthew Waters; special effects supervisor, Daniel Bollettini; assistant director, Aaron Barsky; casting, Pam Dixon. Reviewed at Brussels Fantasy Film Festival, March 18, 2005. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Lankester Merrin - Stellan Skarsgard Father Francis - Gabriel Mann Rachel Lesno - Clara Bellar Sergeant-Major - Ralph Brown Jomo - Israel Adurama Chuma - Andrew French Kessel - Antoine Kamerling Major Granville - Julian Wadham Emekwi - Eddie Osei Sebituana - Ilario Bisi-Pedro

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