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A devil of a time

Three directors, six writers and two stars later, an 'Exorcist' prequel is ready to open.

August 18, 2004|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

It was wintertime in Rome when the curse of "The Exorcist" befell Renny Harlin. In December 2003, the director was two weeks into filming "The Exorcist: the Beginning," a prequel to William Friedkin's landmark 1973 horror classic, when he was hit by a car as he stepped onto an Italian street. Harlin's leg was shattered and required the surgical insertion of 14 pins. Worse still, production on the film -- which even in the disaster-ridden annals of Hollywood ranks as one of the most troubled ever -- ground to a halt for two weeks while he convalesced. Returning to the set, he directed the remaining six shooting weeks on crutches -- and with a newfound respect of the shadowy beyond.

"Not to sound ridiculous, but I think it must have been a warning from somewhere," Harlin said. "If you want to talk about a curse, ominous things happened throughout filming and post-production. There are dark powers in the world. And these are things you can't take lightly."

Despite his physical injuries, he may have gotten off easy.

Fourteen years after its inception, three directors, six screenwriters, two supporting casts and two leading men later, Harlin's "Exorcist" will receive widespread theatrical distribution this Friday. For the horror movie to reach theaters at all, reputations have been tarnished, egos bruised, a sizable personal fortune has been spent -- twice -- and enough mud has been slung that the movie's bad press threatens to overwhelm any discussion of the possible merits of "The Exorcist: the Beginning." (Warner Bros., the film's distributor, chose not to screen the movie for review.)

Its original director, John Frankenheimer, was hospitalized for spinal surgery during preproduction in 2002 and died of a stroke a few weeks later. After principal photography in Africa and Italy wrapped in February 2003, his replacement, Paul Schrader, had the film taken away from him by Morgan Creek, the production company that financed the movie. Then in October, the highly unusual decision was made to essentially scrap Schrader's film and bring in Harlin to film an almost entirely different version with a nearly completely new cast.

Morgan Creek's president, James Robinson, said that Schrader's version of the film cost more than $40 million and that Harlin's cost even more, not including prints and advertising. That means more than $100 million has been spent to bring "The Exorcist: the Beginning" to the screen. At some point, Schrader's version will also receive a limited release. "But not, obviously, at the same time we release Renny's," said Robinson, who had previously said Schrader's version likely would debut only on cable TV or video.

One constant in both films is Stellan Skarsgard, who played the lead, Father Lankester Merrin, for the two directors. "That guarantees me a place in a trivia game, doesn't it?" Skarsgard said.

In the beginning, before there were two versions of "The Exorcist: the Beginning," there was a single script. In 1990, after "The Exorcist III: The Legion" turned a modest profit, Robinson commissioned "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" writer William Wisher to create an "Exorcist" prequel. The resulting screenplay flashed back 30 years to tell the story of Father Merrin (the Max Von Sydow character who clashes with Satan in the original) as a young priest who confronts the devil -- and his faith -- in post-World War II Kenya.

But it languished in the studio's vault for 10 years until bestselling historical novelist Caleb Carr, who had been hired by Morgan Creek to work as a script doctor, stumbled upon the screenplay and drummed up new excitement for the project.

"For a year-and-a-half, I would go to them and say, 'Please let me work with this. I think you really have something here if you take a different approach with it,' " Carr said. "I pleaded with [studio executives] to let me rewrite it and sketched out this whole new concept for them."

Carr's treatment was to serve as a high-minded antidote to previous "Exorcist" sequels: John Boorman's 1977 "Exorcist II: The Heretic," which came to be ranked second by the Golden Turkey Worst Movie of All Time awards, and original "Exorcist" writer William Peter Blatty's disjointed "Exorcist III," which was savaged by critics. Carr's movie begins "Sophie's Choice"-style in Holland in 1944, when a young Father Merrin is forced by an SS officer to select some of his parishioners for execution. From there the plot jumps to East Africa three years later, where Merrin, no longer a priest and burdened with intense spiritual anguish, is an archaeologist. There, he uncovers an ancient religious site -- a place of percolating evil.

On the strength of the script, Frankenheimer, the award-winning director of 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," signed on and Liam Neeson won the role of Father Merrin.

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