The devil made them do it. When Morgan Creek hired Paul Schrader to direct a prequel to William Friedkin's seminal `70s shocker, the Auto Focus auteur promised a slow-burn psychological thriller examining the African origins of the battle between child-possessing demon beast Pazuzu and scowling Scandinavian saviour Father Merrin (Max von Sydow in 1973; Stellan Skarsgård now). He delivered. They fired him. "Too subtle" was the complaint against the finished product, so Renny Harlin was hired for the reshoot. Talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. Yes, as expected, the man who blew up water in Cutthroat Island hasn't exactly delivered the most understated exploration of the struggle between good and evil. Although it may be the dullest.
Remember Merrin's Iraq outing in the original? The snail-paced section designed to build up tension before Linda Blair's bed-banging, neck-breaking routine? AKA, The Boring Bit? Well only the conclusion of this film gets close to even that level of interest. Truly, after 2000's extended edition of The Exorcist dubbed The Version You've Never Seen and Schrader's The Version You Can't See, Harlin's is The Version You Shouldn't See. It's diabolically dreary.
That the script is shaky is a given; hastily rewritten, it touches on interesting issues (temptation, faith, the nature of evil) without leaving an impression, while characters disappear for stretches without reason and a key reveal relies on people idiotically withholding essential information.
What's really shocking, however, is how ineptly it's staged. How can Harlin exploit Nazi atrocities for Merrin's backstory, yet make a Sophie's Choice-style dilemma appear inconsequential? How can a join-the-dots scare-scene, of Izabella Scorupco's towel-covered doctor sneaking through a darkness-cloaked surgery, fail to deliver a chill? And how can the entire picture fail to provide a single shock, despite attempting jolts so cheap they ask tramps for change? Only a solitary scene, involving leeches and child sacrifice, slightly unsettles. The rest is a mess of motiveless and mistimed action, its incompetence a mystery beyond this world.
As for Satan, well he's an untidy old bastard, forever blowing paper about, breaking windows and moving the furniture. If you're not careful, he might even swear at you. In the face of this, Skarsgård is quite astounding, managing to invest a weary decency in his broken-down priest; providing humanity amid the soulless sense-assault (don't get us started on the CG hyenas). If he's this good under Harlin, Schrader's edition should be something to savour when or if it makes it out on DVD. But the star alone cannot work miracles and never in The Beginning do you stop longing for The End.