The full story of the first encounter briefly referenced in the original between The Excorcist's Father Merrin (Skarsgard) and the demon Pazuzu, set in and around an ancient church in Nairobi in 1949. Struggling with his faith, Merrin faces demons both outside and within...
Where do you start with a cacophony like this? It involves dark powers beyond our understanding, the chill touch of evil and the death of all we have come to love and hope for. And that's just the screenplay...
You are, no doubt, well aware of the trials and tribulations that have gone into making this prequel to one of cinema's greatest nerve-wrackers (a film already burdened with two less-than-scratch sequels), and how The Beginning was completely reshot, with previous incumbent Paul Schrader shown the door as rumours spread like black flies that he'd neglected to include anything that was, well, scary. This, though, is Renny Harlin's version and we should hear him out.
If Schrader's problem was restraint, then Harlin goes for broke with a murky, baroque atmosphere closer in texture to a Marilyn Manson video than William Friedkin's much-vaunted original. Cue a monstrous mishmash of rotten and rotting clichés, including blood-smeared walls, inversed crucifixes, slavering hyenas and rattling bedsteads. Harlin does achieve some arresting images amid the maggoty excess, and there is a suitably pestilent array of vile goings-on.
Alas, he also keeps hitting the CGI panic button and the film is afflicted with too many gratuitous, cheap shocks. Skarsgård manfully wrestles to maintain some dignity throughout the lurches of the barely re-animated storyline, and occasionally the ghost of what may have attracted the former director flits past: a loose parallel between the supernatural evil on show here and the more pragmatic wickedness of the Nazis.
However, it's just too much of a muddle, with whole scenes baring no explanation and whole actors looking like they've stumbled into the wrong movie (naming no names, Alan 'Snatch' Ford). As the film twists its tail like a demented serpent, you half expect Schrader to leap out – his complexion gone, literally, to hell – and yell, "I told you so!" in that cough-drop snarl that's been the butt of too many parodies to be scary anymore. And they wouldn't even cough up for Tubular Bells on the soundtrack, either. Boo, hiss all round.
The truth is, this prequel – in whoever's guise – just wasn't required. It isn't quite hell, but clambering to the end of this dusty remnant of an idea is certainly purgatory.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan