William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, filmed in 1973 under the direction of William Friedkin, is full of offensive images. But the film is aware of its offensiveness. In other words, its blasphemy is presented as just that-blasphemy. The Exorcist takes its spiritual themes seriously, investing as much in the struggle between good and evil as it does in scaring the audience. The film is not for everyone, but it is an impressive accomplishment.
By contrast, nothing is impressive about the calamity that is Exorcist: The Beginning (rated R for violence, gore, and disturbing images and rituals). This prequel goes purely for shock value, relying on nearly pornographic violence and disgusting special effects. Combine this with unconvincing computer-generated images and an incomprehensible plot and, well, you've got yourself a film in need of an exorcism itself.
The story outline is not worth describing, but the filmmakers labor under the impression that narrative quality is somehow related to narrative quantity-here you'll find, in addition to demon possession, a massive, slaughtered Roman army, cold-blooded Nazis, blood-thirsty savages, and imperialist Brits.
It would have been intriguing to see what Paul Schrader (a fascinating writer/director whose Calvinist upbringing informs much of his work) would have done with this film-and someday we might have that chance. Mr. Schrader was the first director to film Exorcist: The Beginning for Morgan Creek. When studio executives saw his final cut, they promptly fired him. Apparently the executives were looking for the sort of subtle touch that Renny Harlin (the creative force behind notorious bombs like Cutthroat Island and Cliffhanger), Mr. Schrader's replacement, could bring to the project.
The original Exorcist had more in common with the lo-fi frights of Open Water than it does with this extravaganza of gore. Despite some ghastly images of the demon-possessed girl Regan, the truly memorable scenes from The Exorcist are quietly terrifying moments like the sight of Max von Sydow's breath freezing in mid-air. But if it was violence and gore that was lacking in Mr. Schrader's version of Exorcist: The Beginning, that's certainly no longer the case.
Morgan Creek suggested recently that the DVD release of Exorcist: The Beginning may include both versions of the film. Mr. Schrader's cut may or may not be worth seeing, but it's bound to shine by comparison to its theatrical counterpart.