Dir: RennyHarlin. 2004. USA. 114mins.

A thunderousassault of visual and aural effects, including digitally rendered hyenas androiling sandstorms straight out of The Mummy, the long-gestating Exorcist:The Beginning is a colossal studio misfire that is less unprecedented forits erratic production history than for its capacity to rival notorious fiasco ExorcistII: The Heretic (1977) in sheer jaw-dropping idiocy.

Thismuch-troubled $80m-plus production opened to better-than-expected numbers inthe US at the weekend, taking $18.2m from 2,803 screens, although bad word ofmouth will severely staunch this flow. Foreign numbers are likely to be better,particularly in territories like the UK - where the original was banned onvideo for years, thus ensuring the franchise's success for years to come - forwhat is in essence a gimmicky creep show devoid of intelligent scares andbearing little resemblance to its 1973 ancestor.

Early reportssuggested the prequel would mark a return to the metaphysical horror of itssource material, forsaking projectile vomiting in favour of more subtleponderings. But with director Paul Schrader - appointed after the death of JohnFrankenheimer - removed during post-production for reportedly not delivering acut that was scary enough, the decision was taken to send replacement directorRenny Harlin (A Nightmare on Elm Street IV, Cutthroat Island) toRome and Morocco to start all over again.

The results areakin to something like Battlefield: Exorcist, a mind-numbing barrage ofsudden in-your-face jolts culminating in a garish battle between good and evilin the Kenyan desert that had preview audiences in America chortling inderision.

Interestingly a releaseof Schrader's cut through ancillary channels is scheduled for sometime next year.If bad word of mouth in America results in less than encouraging box office forHarlin's cut, publicity from the debacle could benefit Schrader's version -praised by Exorcist author WilliamPeter Blatty for its less overt depiction of spiritual malaise - and thefranchise in total. The most terrifying notion of all is that Battlefield:Exorcist seems unlikely to go away quietly.

Following abrief prologue in the circa 500 AD African desert, in which slain soldiers liestrewn beneath a CG-enhanced sea of inverted crosses, the story shifts topost-World War Two Cairo, where Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) hasretreated after an unforeseen crisis of faith in Europe. Hired for his IndianaJones-like archaeological skills by a private antiquities dealer, Merrintravels to remote Turkana region of Kenya to retrieve a religious artifact froma British government-funded project that has unearthed a perfectly preservedbut anachronistically confounding Byzantine church - Christianity didn't arrivein the area until late in the fifth century.

Merrinencounters a rogue's gallery of characters convened at the dig, including anearnest young Vatican priest (James D'Arcy) assigned to protect the holiness ofthe site, a sexy foreign aid worker (Izabella Scorupco) who tests Merrin'schastity and a drunk and lecherous British overseer (Alan Ford) infected withcarbuncles.

There are also someincreasingly spooked Turkana natives who are among the first victims of amalevolent spirit unleashed from the excavation -one slave labourer vomits upwhite goo while another gives birth to a stillborn monster baby, two examplesof the film's tiresome predilection for literal horror devices.

Throughintermittent flashbacks the source of Merrin's wartime loss of faith isgradually revealed - emulating Raiders Of The Lost Ark yet again, it'ssome cartoonishly sadistic Nazis - but as evil spirits permeate the dig in theform of seizing natives, befouled walls, suicidal British officials andmarauding insects and hyenas, the fallen priest regains his faith.

Eventually he engagesin epic battle with a less than subtle satanic force that finally takes theform of a harridan resembling the possessed Regan MacNeil character from theoriginal - replete with festering facial lacerations, acrobatic crab walkingand lascivious ashtray drawl, heightened through advances in special effects.

But technicalcraft is what ultimately destroys Exorcist: The Beginning, an unholymess that tries in vain to convey some sense of focused grandeur through thesweeping camera work of veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and thedeadpan solemnity of the script's unintentionally hammy dialogue, uttered asatonal line readings by the supremely untalented D'Arcy and Scorupco (it soundslike it has been dubbed from a foreign language).

Only Skarsgardemerges with any dignity intact. But his brooding Father Merrin is eclipsed bya raucous, ultimately exhausting sound design that delivers cheap shocks in theform of sudden reveals and feels tacked on in post-production, as if todistract from an inherently lacklustre script.

Harlin'sdirection is methodical and lifeless, more Cutthroat Island than DieHard With A Vengeance, and so overwhelmed by special effects that the filmand franchise seem in desperate need of exorcisms in their own right - to saynothing of the studio and production company that birthed both and the systemof filmmaking that supported the prequel's circuitous journey to themarketplace.

Prod cos: Morgan Creek prods, Dominion Prods
US dist:
Warner Bros
Int'l sales:
Exec prod:
GuyMcElwaine, David C Robinson
James GRobinson
Alexi Hawley from a story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr from characterscreated by William Peter Blatty
Mark Goldblatt
Prod des:
: LukeReichle
Music: Trevor Rabin

Main cast:
StellanSkarsgard, James D'Arcy, Izabella Scorupco