Having seen the second made but first to release Exorcist – The Beginning, the Renny Harlin version of the movie, I was very keen to see the original movie which the Studio saw and then scrapped, the Paul Schrader version.
This I managed to do during the Edinburgh Film Festival 2005, and actually with paid tickets I managed to even get to hear a Q&A with the Director, which in itself was extremely interesting. For now though, let’s look at the movie.
It’s really hard to watch this and not do any comparisons with the Harlin remake, and with so many similar scenes, the same actors and a very similar story I found it almost impossible not to. In doing so you realise how weak and one dimensional Harlin’s version is, the and depth of character and their development just adds so many layers to each of the characters, giving them a much more human feel and making you connect with them rather than just watch them as you did with the Harlin movie.
Subtlety, dialogue and development are the keys here, things which were drastically missing from the Harlin version, and instantly you see the differences. The opening scene with Father Merrin and the Nazi’s is the first strong example of the difference in style and Schrader handles this wonderfully. The single scene builds the Nazi character much thicker with some uncertainty of the Priest, whereas the Harlin is shown as a stock Nazi character. You also understand the root of the crisis in faith that Merrin has come to, and through this single scene it hits you just as hard as it did he.
It’s this that I felt was the strongest part of the movie throughout, the characters richness and depth, and the fact that you could see them as real individuals and connect with some part of them. Merrin in particular is the real focus of the movie, and the analysis of his crisis, his faith and who he really is.
The following of the second, younger Priest in Father Francis, played well by Gabriel Mann, mirrors for Merrin the faith and hunger that he had as a young Priest, and watching his own slight crisis in faith provides an interesting viewpoint for the audience. Not only to understand what Merrin went through, but to watch Merrin witness this himself.
Stellan Skarsgård plays the character superbly as well. There’s so much more restraint in the performance with inward pain and anger, he’s superb to watch and really does make you feel as though he carries a tortured soul. The slow climb out of the crisis to the fight back against the Demon is played slowly and with a lot of passion. It’s the moment when Merrin relives the Nazi slaughter and his second choice that shows us who he really is as a person, not just as a Priest. Comparing the two performances of Skarsgård together is, as Schrader said, an example of a masterclass in acting. In fact the whole two movies are a film students dream.
Another excellent character was Major Granville, very well played by Julian Wadham. He was far stronger, richer and deeper than the Harlin version, and his scenes were a lot more believable and striking than the Harlin version which had him going mad over his butterfly collection. Here he really plays a man getting out of his depth and letting events overtake him, and he has a superb scene in the village which provides with a strong connection to Merrins past.
A couple of things that stuck out in the movie but were then understandable during Schraders Q&A, were in the CGI and the famous flash of the Demon face. The face flash, which was so subtly done in the original Exorcist movies, was hugely prominent and did not hold with the subtlety in the rest of the movie. Some of the CGI was also poorly done, and during a sweeping camera shot across the front of the buried chapel the CGI rocks moved together as they tried to hold with the camera shot, the first appearance of the hyenas was also poor, showing as pure CGI and not looking in the least bit real.
The script for this movie is very good, and in stark contrast to the Harlin version. This has less blood, more story and characterisation, and much more concentration on the personal battle between Merrin and the Demon. It provides a much more intelligent and subtle story building characters and the plot to a much more satisfying climax.