"This movie is cursed!" exclaimed movie-magazine headlines regarding Exorcist: The Beginning, but those dire warnings turned out to be exaggerated. Considering a tumultuous production history that actually did seem cursed, Renny Harlin's much-maligned prequel to The Exorcist is a surprisingly competent, serious-minded shocker filled with the same anxious foreboding that made the 1973 original so phenomenally effective. The story lacks focus and feels cobbled together (perhaps the result of its tortured development, which included the untimely death of original director John Frankenheimer), but Stellan Skarsgård is well-cast as Father (now Mr.) Merrin, a lapsed Catholic priest summoned to East Africa in 1949 to retrieve a demonic idol. He discovers a buried church, a vast underground cavern, demonic possession, and a legacy of carnage that preys upon guilt-ridden memories from his parish in Nazi-occupied Holland. Harlin delivers the gross-out moments that Warner Brothers demanded, but otherwise shows remarkable restraint while cinematographer Vittorio Storaro delivers doom-laden visual atmosphere. It's not the classic many were hoping for--not even close--but it's still a win-win scenario for horror fans, since it's rumored the unreleased and "abandoned" version directed by Paul Schrader will be paired with this film for its DVD release. Comparisons will no doubt prove interesting. --Jeff Shannon
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