Exorcist: The Beginning

I’ll tell you the history of “Exorcist: The Beginning,” and you tell me if you’re surprised that it sucks.

Originally, John Frankenheimer was going to direct it, but he backed out and then died. He was replaced by Paul Schrader, a very talented screenwriter (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver”) and a passable director (“American Gigolo,” “Auto Focus”). Schrader finished shooting and gave Morgan Creek Productions executives a screening, whereupon Morgan Creek fired him. In the words of the New York Post, his movie didn’t have “the bloody violence the backers had wanted.” Schrader had made a more psychological film; Morgan Creek wanted blood and gore.

So Renny Harlin, director of such crappy fare as the fourth “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Cutthroat Island,” was hired to replace Schrader, and the film — pay attention here — was almost entirely reshot. (There’s some debate over how much of Schrader’s footage made it to the final version, but the estimates range from none to only about 10 percent.) They had a finished movie, and they scrapped it, rewrote the script, and started over.

At some point in there, an executive ought to have swallowed his pride and pulled the plug, because it should have been clear to any sentient being that the movie was failing at every turn. Sure enough, they got the gore they wanted, and sure enough, most of it is gratuitous and off-putting. It’s the kind of violence that makes you angry because you can tell the filmmaker put it in just because someone told him to, and not because it emerges organically from the story. For example, we must watch the same flashback of the same little girl getting shot in the head by Nazis three different times. Surely one image of a child being shot in the head is enough for any movie — but, then, “Exorcist: The Beginning” is a movie that likes to show children being traumatized. (Wait’ll you see one get ripped apart by hyenas!)

It is set in 1949 in Kenya, where archeologists have discovered a Christian church buried under the sand. They are alarmed because the church appears to date back to well before Christianity came to that part of Africa. (The year they give is A.D. 5, which was actually well before Christianity came to ANYWHERE, let alone Africa.) Lancaster Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), a former Catholic priest who lost his faith during World War II and who is now an archeologist — and who, in his later years, would cast the devil out of Linda Blair in the original “Exorcist” — is called upon to search for a particular artifact in the church and, if possible, to determine how the heck the church got there in the first place.

Well, things in Kenya are already pretty creepy when Merrin gets there, and his “don’t call me ‘Father'” routine just adds surliness to the mix. Computer-generated images that are supposed to look like hyenas are roaming around the dig site even during the day, and the standard Odd Events are occurring right and left (crucifixes mysteriously turning upside-down, maggots everywhere, that sort of thing). A French priest (Patrick O’Kane) went mad after climbing down into the submerged church through the ceiling, and now a little boy named Joseph (Remy Sweeney) is behaving strangely in an all-too-familiar way. A young priest (James D’Arcy) is hanging around for atmospheric purposes, and there’s a pretty doctor (Izabella Sorupco) with whom Merrin would like to do his own exorcising, if you know what I mean.

What made the original “Exorcist” (and none of its sequels) work was that it focused our attention on something in particular: the devil, and his inhabitation of a little girl. This prequel makes the villain too vague. We know there’s something “evil” around, but we don’t know what it is, or whom it has possessed. There is no suspense over the fates of the characters because not only do we not care about them, we don’t know what they’re being threatened by, either.

Maybe money became a factor. I would imagine after spending $30 million to make a film, you get a little cheap when you decide to remake it. The afore-referenced hyena attack might have been horrific if the hyenas didn’t look so laughably fake, for example.

Harlin achieves a few moments of delicious creepiness early on, before we realize the story isn’t going anywhere. By the time we get to the real exorcising, it’s too late. We’re bored with, and as, hell.

D+ (1 hr., 54 min.; R, some profanity, brief partial nudity, a lot of blood and unsettling images.)