Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: X-Men: First Class may or may not be the most ill-advised of the summer's superhero movies, but it's hard to argue that this story is screaming to be told, given how thoroughly the backstory was exposited in the earlier entries in the franchise. Then again, there can be worse things than having a modestly unnecessary prequel - such as having TWO inordinately unnecessary prequels competing with each other.

(Part 2 of 2. Be sure to check out the companion review!)

Let us give the Morgan Creek people their due: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist would have been a disaster at the box office. So from their end, Exorcist: The Beginning probably seemed like a smart bet. Stripped of everything that made it meaningful, if hectoring, the Exorcist prequel predictably turned into a screaming mess of over-the-top Satanic imagery and bombast, exactly what you would expect from Harlin, a director whose movies have always been chiefly marked not just by their barbaric editing and functional cinematography, but by the extraordinary noise accompanying their visual emptiness.

The opening tells us two things that will serve to explain just how much less ambitious and crappier The Beginning shall be than its cousin. First, there is only a small dollop of 1944 footage that reveals absolutely nothing of what happened, before we hop to 1949, to find Merrin (still Skarsgård) officially retired from the priest business - a detail suggesting that Harlin and Hawley don't have a very good a handle on how the Catholic Church works - working as an archaeologist in Cairo. This is because the information of that awful event during the war isn't going to serve as the backdrop for Merrin's story, the way it did in Dominion; it's instead going to be a garden-variety dark secret to be doled out in tiny doses, serving to tease the viewer along and come as a shock when it happens. Because a man's spiritual crisis isn't sexy, you see, and removing this knowledge until much later makes Merrin's crisis far less definite and meaningful.

Second, Harlin lets Storaro go right ahead with the 2:1, and indulges in some hellaciously pushy post-production color work to bathe everything in the movie with a golden hue (thankfully, in 2004, the dread orange 'n teal wasn't a thing yet, because Harlin is absolutely not the kind of filmmaker to let a thing like that go by). To grossly oversimplify things, 1.85:1 is the aspect ratio of human stories, good for close-ups and medium shots; wider ratios are for landscapes and group shots, and a sense of the "epic" that more often than not sacrifices our ability to connect so well with individual people.

This time around, Merrin is sent to the small village (which we are told now is in Kenya) at the behest of a private collector who has heard tell of an ancient church - more ancient than should be possible in that region - and hopes the ex-priest can find a certain specific artifact (a smaller version of the Pazuzu head as seen in the original Exorcist) there.

At the village, things are sort of the same and sort of different. Father Francis (James D'Arcy) is still the new missionary, but this time he's on a secret mission from Rome to find the truth behind an ancient conspiracy. Rachel has become Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a far more earthy version of the base doctor. Sgt. Maj. Harris (Brown, still) is there, but barely matters, and the whole matter of the British colonial impulse as sign of The Evil Men Do is pushed so far to the back it might not as well be there at all. Cheche is gone, replaced by Joseph (Remy Sweeney), the son of Jomo (Israel Aduramo), the native serving as translator; they're the first local family to convert to Christianity. They were both in the first movie, but not in nearly so important a capacity.

Gone as well is the vast bulk of the material about Merrin's crisis; instead he prods around the mysterious graves and temples, finding whatever clues he can to the place's wicked history, like a more self-loathing Indiana Jones. Skarsgård doesn't even try to hide how much less he cares about this iteration of the character, wearing a single expression of mildly worried confusion for most of the film, and not playing up Merrin's psychological pain at all - not that the screenplay gives him the chance.

Replacing all of it, we get lots of crazy, over-the-top resoundingly uninteresting horror film boilerplate. Noises bang as characters walk around (or in Sarah's case, take a shower), people turn around to find - gasp! - someone standing right behind him, there are dramatic camera angles meant to look threatening, the lights go out at convenient moments. There's violence - so much, not only including that same loving shot of the maggot-ridden fetus, but a scene that goes on twice as long as it possible should, in which Joseph's brother is torn apart by CGI hyenas, that look a bit better than their Dominion counterparts, but not nearly enough better. And of course, much gorier possession make-up, when the time comes, as well as a desecration of the church scene that is positively nauseating where Schrader's version was sort of disgusting but mostly refined.

And all of it done up in a visual language of profound excess, as only Storaro in his period of craziness with a director historically given to being busy without any reason for it could manage. But even that's not a patch on the slice-and-dice editing, meant to give the film a jagged edge, but only managing to leave it borderline-unwatchable. My favorite part is a scene of Merrin examining a paper; the shots cut from his face to the paper and back literally three times before he reacts, giving us a precisely mathematical definition of Harlin's aesthetic: he will not do in two shots what he can do in six.

It's all very clamorous and irritating and stupid, and an utter violation of anything that ever made The Exorcist memorable; there is nothing at all sophisticated or theologically profound - or theologically coherent - in The Beginning, just gaudy effects and things jumping out to say "boo!" every three minutes. It's tactless - if Schrader dabbles in racist depiction of Third World societies, Harlin luxuriates in it - and not at all scary. Dominion might be a flawed prequel, but The Beginning is so asinine it almost makes you wish the 1973 film didn't exist in the first place.

Reviews in this series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)