Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Ralph Brown
Directed by Paul Schrader
The story is now known to horror fans all over the world: after watching an almost finished version of director Paul Schrader’s prequel to The Exorcist, executives at Morgan Creek decided the movie was not what they were expecting from an entry in the horror series and had Schrader replaced by Renny Harlin to shoot a different film, with by large a new cast and a rewritten screenplay.
With Harlin’s movie being the disaster we witnessed last year, Schrader’s prequel received a proper premiere at the Brussels Fantasy Film Festival last Friday. With such a backstory to the film, it is hard to judge it objectively, but I’ll try my best…
The premises of Schrader’s Exorcist are pretty much the same as for Harlin’s: having lived through some traumatizing events during WWII, Father Merrin takes a break from the Church to conduct archaeological excavations in British-administered East Africa, where he digs out what appears to be a pagan church dedicated to a demon of some sort.
After the flop of the official prequel – a film that clearly lacked atmosphere and felt like an action movie without any action – Schrader’s seemed like the perfect alternative, described as slow-paced, character driven and more creepy and psychological than plain shocking or gory. Now was it worth the wait? Well, I hate to be the one to break the news, but even if it is definitely not a bad movie, it might not be exactly what we were in for.
It’s not hard to see why the studios rejected the film: it simply isn’t horror. Schrader is not a genre fan, and it shows. Rather than building tension or trying to frighten the audience, he prefers to focus on the theological and cultural aspects of the story. The film deals with such issues as faith, beliefs and guilt by exploring Merrin’s psychology and his path from his scarring experience during the war to his new-found faith. It also delves into the clash of cultures and the evils of colonialism with the differences between British forces and local tribes. There is a certain ambiance and a few horror elements distilled throughout the story, but nothing seems intended to be genuinely scary; it just isn’t Schrader’s purpose. Even the final confrontation is less out-and-out horror than it is a theological discussion and a way to test Merrin by leading him into temptation. It’s not amazing considering the writer-director’s background: born in an austere Calvinist family, he first wanted to become a priest, and his movies have always reflected a certain obsession with moral values and an apparent condemnation of vice in all its forms.
The interpretation is excellent. Stellan Skarsgård leads the ensemble with subtlety and nuance, and Gabriel Mann is particularly endearing as the young and innocent Father Francis, whose absolute confidence in God contrasts Merrin’s lack of faith. An honourable mention should also go to pop singer Billy Crawford who, for his first role on screen, bravely chose to break his image as a teen idol and is quite convincing as Cheche, a handicapped boy who plays a determining part in the story.
On the whole, Schrader’s film is rather enjoyable if keeping in mind that it is by no means the horror movie one would expect from an Exorcist prequel. Taken as an exploration of the human mind and its weaknesses, it may not go far enough in its reflection but is nevertheless interesting. A weird mix of genres, Paul Schrader’s Original Exorcist Prequel will go down in history as further proof that studios don’t like movies that defy categorization.
2 1/2 out of 5