It is common knowledge by now that "Exorcist: The Beginning", the prequel to the hugely successful horror film "The Exorcist" went through two hands before being released to the public under the direction of Renny Harlin, the director of Cliffhanger, Ford Fairlane, and Die Hard 2. Paul Schrader's completed version, now titled "Exorcist: The Original Prequel" will see the light of day soon.
The films both have identical stories, yet the Schrader version is softer, more celebral, perhaps even more spiritual. What is interesting is that the Harlin version features William Peter Blatty, the original author of "The Exorcist", lending a hand on the screenplay. Of course, after the disaster of the "Exorcist III" film, directed by Blatty, perhaps that is part of the reason for the distortions/gross-outs in the Harlin version. Caleb Carr (The Alienist) detailed the story of the film, mostly shot by Schrader, but derided Paul Schrader post-filming, provoking the studio's actions. The books that could be written about author-director feuds would fill a library of horrors, but that is a tale for another day.
The plot deals with the usual threat to the balance between good and evil through a portal to Hell that exists beneath an ancient Byzantine church in Kenya. It expands the moral universe of the film by correlating this fictional terror with everyday evil, from Nazi atrocities, to colonial excesses.
Father Merrin, fleeing from wartime memories in Nazi Holland, is finally forced to face them, and perhaps his own culpability, before he can deal with external demons. The demon is expelled, for the moment, but the destruction of the African community outside the church while the spiritual battle rages within shows that we do not really need demons to do evil.
Of course, this is set in a time when the world was not yet flat, and we have come a long way from there, but the killing instinct still drives much evil, and hot spots of state-sanctioned violence persist.
The richest scenes of the film, and it will be hard to separate the auteur from the scenes until the Schrader version is released, are the flashbacks to Nazi killings, wanton and cruel. Father Merrin's torments with his faith perhaps began then. When Father Merrin selects villagers for a Nazi firing squad, an SS officer mocks him, saying "God is not here today", an echo that reverberates through the film. The acquiescence of the world governments, and the Church in these acts turns him away from the Church, until he sees the same conflict between the Turkana tribals and the British colonial forces. This is the essence of the film, the demon almost an afterthought. Paul Schrader was eminently qualified to render this character, after his portrayal of the human Jesus in the screenplay for "The Last Temptation of Christ", and Jake in "Raging Bull".
Intense photography by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Last Tango In Paris) would have made the Schrader version a last gasp for the 70s era of fine, director-driven films (although Schrader was no 'movie brat', unlike Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, etc.). The Harlin version is marred by a number of pointless, deliberately offensive scenes. This is one film, where, unfortunately for the theme, the devil is in the details.
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