Exorcist: The Beginning is one of those movies which never had the slightest chance of finding an audience: declared a turkey before hardly anyone had seen it, and cast in an unfavourable light by the controversy surrounding Morgan Creek's canning of the preceding 'not horrifying enough' version made by Paul Schrader (Dominion, 2005), it was dead in the water.
It is important to look at such a film removed from its original damaging release-and-reception context. Exorcist: The Beginning is not, by any reckoning, a terribly good film, but it is far better than many horror movies in the underwhelming era of tripe like Darkness Falls (2003) – and it is a film which, although this may come as news, has some bold ideas.
In the audio commentary on the DVD of the film, Harlin is mainly preoccupied with what formalists call compositional questions – namely, how he went about crafting a prequel to an extremely well-known film (he even absent-mindedly calls The Exorcist  'the mother of all horror films'!), and how he regrets the haste with which some 'unconvincing' CGI effects were put together.
Although the film has problems balancing the necessity to deliver expected generic shocks with an obvious desire to provide a thoughtful backstory to the original, Harlin's skill as a director is always evident. (And Vittorio Storaro's cinematography isn't exactly chopped liver, either.) More importantly, what has always made Harlin's work since the Charles Band-produced Prison (1987) noteworthy – the marrying of the visceral and kinetic structures of action-horror-fantasy cinema with intriguing aspects of the 'social imaginary' – is entirely at work here.
Every Exorcist film (and I defend Boorman's and Blatty's much-maligned contributions to the series, while bowing to the greatness of William Friedkin's original) faces, more than usual in the horror genre, the question of how much dramatic weight or truth to invest in a basic pretext: that the 'struggle of good and evil' in the world, at all places and all times, is due to the resurgent actions of the Devil and his ultimate vanquishing by God. Every storyteller handling this material has a crucial choice to make: either evil is really because of the Devil, or all this religious stuff is just a screen, a cover, a handy metaphor for other ways of understanding the horrors of social and political history.
Of course, many films only dimly grasp this crucible, or run away if they do grasp it, resulting in enormous ambivalences, contradictions and mixed messages in the majority of horror movies. (This is an area analysed brilliantly by Andrew Britton in the '70s.)
It is on this terrain that Exorcist: The Beginning becomes interesting. The reviews that mercilessly mocked the film for its clichés and contrivances breezily overlooked telling prospective viewers that the film's good vs. evil battle takes place against the backdrop of two large historical incidents: the Holocaust (dramatised, Sophie's Choice-style, in the flashbacks of Merrin [Stellan Skarsgård]), and a colonial war in which the British military systematically wipes out an African community.
One can laugh at the fact that, inevitably, another child must be possessed, causing walls to quake and blood to run like rivers – but the fact that the child is now an African boy (Remy Sweeney as Joseph), not an American girl, is hardly insignificant in this respect. (Also telling – and wholly admirable – is the film's clear choice of Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie  as a model in its depiction of the colonised's resistance, as well as its intelligent casting of the 1940s-looking, rationalist-gone-awry Izabella Scorupco as Sarah).
Thus, the true ending of the film (not the one that cornily records the hero's 'redemption' as a Man of Christ, nor the one that grandly exorcises Sarah only in order to give her an expedient human death) – when Merrin and the cleansed little Joseph emerge from the hellish buried cathedral, only to confront a field of dead bodies both British and African, wiped out in war – has, in the light of everything that has preceded it, a tragic, Leonesque grandeur that lifts it far above the level of disposable 'subtext'.
© Adrian Martin May 2005