NOW PLAYING: Exorcist: The Beginning/Open Water

Posted: Monday, August 23, 2004

The end of the summer sees an interesting mix of movies. You have the action flicks that are maybe good enough to win an award, like Collateral. You have the high concept action movies that can't compete with Spider-Man, like Alien vs. Predator. And you have the pre-Halloween, summer scare flicks, of which this weekend produced not one but two. Though different in just about every way a movie can be, Open Water and Exorcist: The Beginning both have the same goal: to scare you silly. Let's just say that one succeeds and one, well, it tries really hard.

Exorcist: The Beginning is a member of a fairly exclusive group of Hollywood movies in that it is actually a prequel rather than a sequel. The prequel has a little more credibility because it suggests, erroneously at times, that it is truer to the original than some money grubbing sequel might be because it is automatically tied to the storyline of the first film. And, the prequel is automatically a little riskier an endeavor because some of the element of surprise is sacrificed. Case in point, Exorcist's super-priest Father Merrin is not going to be killed at the end of this movie. I know because, chronologically, it takes place some forty years before The Exorcist does. Stellan Skarsgard, taking the role that Max Von Sydow made famous, is Lancaster Merrin, an archaeologist living in Africa in the late 1940s. When a 1500 year old Byzantine church is discovered buried in the desert, far from where any known churches were to have been at that time, Merrin is dispatched to join in its excavation. Though at this point a fallen priest without faith, he is still a foremost expert on Catholic rituals and iconography. Little does he know that instead of a curious archaeological find, he and his team are about to come face to face with the devil himself at the very spot where Lucifer was cast to earth.

The set up for this film is very interesting and hooked me from the start. If only the acting could have been a little more vibrant, involved, and the gore and violence toned down. This brings us to a story I find far more interesting and somewhat unbelievable than the good vs. evil playing out on the screen. Exorcist was actually shot twice. The movie you are seeing is actually the second attempt. Awhile back, someone got an idea for a prequel to The Exorcist involving Father Merrin as a younger man and his first encounter with the demon who later claim his life. Everyone was on board, a script was written and Paul Schrader, a well-respected director was hired. The movie, with cast in place, was shot, edited and delivered to the studio, all nice and neat. The problem is, the studio heads didn't like it. "More gore!" they shouted. "More blood, more horror in this horror movie." And so, creative differences insurmountable, Schrader was fired and Renny Harlin, director of Cutthroat Island and Nightmare on Elm Street 4, was hired. However, Harlin balked at just fixing "mistakes" in Schrader's movie and demanded to reshoot the film, from scratch, which is exactly what they did. Same cast, different script, different movie. Scrader's film, reportedly more thoughtful, suspenseful, and character driven, (all those things missing in this film) will be released on DVD at the same time Harlin's version is, although the director is trying hard to secure a theatrical release. So, in essence, this movie cost twice what it might have, a nearly unforgivable sin in Hollywood. In the end, what we are left with is a good plot executed with mediocre skill. A blood bath that sometimes frightens, but more often frustrates, especially in the lame duke-it-out ending. Personally, I can't wait to see the film as it was intended, before the studio deemed to "fix it." Grade: C+

A far superior fright film at the theater this weekend is Open Water, a terrifying portrayal of a scuba-diving trip gone wrong. When Susan and Daniel, a busy career couple, have to change their travel plans at the last minute, a low-rent tropical vacation is all they can find. They make the best of it, however, until after exploring an underwater reef, the two divers surface to find their boat gone and themselves all alone in the open ocean. Based on true events, Open Water is a gut wrenching slide from irritation, to fear, to total panic, as it becomes apparent that no one is coming to rescue them. With an unpredictable current and increasingly bold groups of sharks, it is up to our heroes to try to prop each other up, physically and mentally as day creeps inexorably into night.


Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis in Lions Gate's Open Water - 2004.

Rated: R

Photo Copyright Lions Gate Films

Open Water is a nuanced character study and succeeds based on the simple story and intense character development, instead of its budget, a mere $150,000 - pennies compared to the double dip of Exorcist. Though we have little in the way of backstory, you very quickly identify with and care about these two characters. Filmed with hand-held cameras, the movie has a slight home-movie feel, the reality of which only heightens the terror. Open Water may not have explosions and buckets of blood, but it can outscare the devil any day of the week. Grade: A

Both Open Water and Exorcist are rated R for language, violence, and some nudity.

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