You didn't need supernatural powers to predict that Exorcist - The Beginning would horrify for all the wrong reasons. A prequel/sequel to the 70s shocker, it tells how the original's devil-battling priest (Max Von Sydow then; Stellan Skarsgård now) first grappled with demon-beast Pazuzu. The place? Africa. The era? The 40s. The result? Largely tedium; a botch job of mistimed scare scenes, bland characters and computer-generated hyenas - alieviated only by Skarsgård, who delivers a performance much better than the material deserves.
The man behind the mess is Renny Harlin, the director of the mercilessly bland CutThroat Island, who was hired to reshoot the gore-drenched moneyspinner after a first effort by Auto Focus helmer Paul Schrader was deemed dull by studio suits. So, intead of a reportedly slow-burn psychological thriller, we get a blaring, in-your-face "fright fest", charged with jolts so low-wattage they might just scare you to sleep.
"EVEN THE SIMPLEST OF SHOCKS IS SCREWED UP"
It's sickly absorbing to see how even the simplest of shocks is screwed up despite having apparently fail-safe elements in place. Such as when Izabella Scorupco takes a shower. You have a beautiful woman. In a towel. In the dark. With a viscous Satanic presence knocking about. How hard can it be? Yet you're only likely to jump out of your seat if you're desperate for the loo.
There is one unsettling scene, when a spooky-eyed child is set to be slaughtered in order to defeat the demon. As his African elders chant away and his teary-eyed father looks on, it's impossible not to feel vaguely involved. But this soon passes and it's back to demonic forces making the place untidy by blowing paper around and graffiting the walls.
In the face of this, Skarsgård is superb, lending his troubled priest real dignity. When he's not bothered the star can easily appear bored (see King Arthur), but here he somehow manages to maintain some warmth, humanity and humour in what's essentially a spiritless, cynical film.