Dir:Paul Schrader. US. 2005. 111mins.

Shroudedin controversy, almost buried at birth by its producers Morgan Creek (whocommissioned an alternative version by Renny Harlin), Paul Schrader's Exorcistprequel is a far richer affair than its troubled production history mightsuggest. A notable improvement on Harlin's rushed job (released to mediocrebusiness and largely damning reviews last year), this is a grown-up horrormovie in which performance and character development matter just as much as the(admittedly often creaky) special effects.

Althoughthe film has now secured a theatrical distributor (Dutch Filmworks) in theBenelux, its fate in North America is yet to be determined. Certainly the buzzsurrounding its world premiere at the Brussels Fantasy Film Festival may yetprompt a roll-out on the big screen: Warner Bros is rumoured to be mulling overan initial three-city, 100-print release. Whatever happens, Schrader's Exorcistwill soon appear on DVD, probably alongside Harlin's picture on two-disc specialsets.

Thefilm will certainly pique the curiosity of fans of the Exorcist films,for whether they like or loathe it, they will want to see it. Thanks to itsunusual gestation, the project has acquired a certain novelty value: in makingtwo very different movies on the identical subject, Morgan Creek hasinadvertently provided a horror movie equivalent of Woody Allen's MelindaAnd Melinda, in which the same story is told twice - once as tragedy andonce as farce.

Withits tortured loner hero Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), this is alsorecognisably a Schrader film and will attract his admirers too. Its themes(alienation, guilt, violence, the struggle for faith) aren't so very differentfrom those explored in such earlier Schrader works as Affliction and LightSleeper.

Merrin'stemptation by Satan, in which he is given the chance to re-live a key event inhis life, also carries echoes of Schrader's screenplay for The LastTemptation Of Christ. One of the fascinations of the project is seeing anauteur struggling to leave his imprint on a horror movie franchise.

Theset up here is well nigh identical to that of the Harlin picture (which usedsnippets of Schrader's footage as well as several of his original cast members,including Stellan Skarsgard).

Merrin,tormented with guilt over his inability to stop a Nazi massacre in Holland in1944, has left the priesthood. It's 1947 and he is working as an archaeologiston a site in the Turkana district of north-west British East Africa. He isattracted to a beautiful young medic Rachel (Clara Bellar) and pestered by anidealistic young priest Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), who reminds him ofhimself before he lost his faith.

Schraderavoids much of the infantile bombast of Harlin's film. Rather than portray thewar in heaven directly in a set-piece, he refers to it by showing Byzantinemosaics which depict Lucifer's battle with the angels. These are found in anancient church buried in the sand. As Merrin investigates the building, hediscovers beneath it a Satanic crypt.

Britishsoldiers try to loot the church, but, in doing so unleash the forces of evil.It's at this point that the film diverges from the usual generic rules. Thecrippled village boy who is possessed, 15-year-old Cheche (played by pop starBilly Crawford) doesn't have any of the symptoms of Linda Blair in Friedkin'sfilm. Thanks to Lucifer, he makes a miraculous recovery from illness andinjury.

Checheisn't the only one wrestling with his inner demons. Rachel is still traumatisedby her time in a concentration camp. The well-meaning Major Granville (JulianWadham) is horrified by his own capacity for violence. Merrin, meanwhile,agonises over whether evil is innate in human beings.

Schraderis alert to the political context. He deals deftly with the casual racism ofthe British soldiers and the tensions between the villagers and their colonialoccupiers. There are dutiful nods to Friedkin's Exorcist as well as oneor two more arcane references (for instance, Merrin framed in a doorway,marching away into the wilderness like John Wayne's character in Ford's TheSearchers, or the British soldier shown decapitated in a tableau scenereminiscent of old renaissance paintings of John Baptist.)

Wherethe film stumbles is in its special effects. The CG-generated hyenas arelaughable and there are moments, especially those depicting the possessed,gimlet-eyed Cheche which skirt close to self-parody. ("Don't ever touch mewith that again, priest!" he growls in a deep, devilish bass at FatherFrancis when a crucifix is put on his forehead.)

Perhapsas a result of Morgan Creek cutting off funding, production values arevariable. Ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's lighting wizardry is onlyfitfully in evidence here.

Nonetheless,the key set-pieces (the Nazi massacre which opens the film, the exorcism sceneitself) are confidently and intelligently handled. Skarsgard brings gravitasand pathos to his role as Merrin while Schrader tackles the material in hiscustomary, full-blooded style. Though almost inevitably falling short ofFriedkin's classic 1973 original, this prequel is an intriguing piece of workin its own right and surely deserves its belated chance to try to reach anaudience.

Prodco: MorganCreek
Exec prods:
Guy McElwaine, David Robinson
JamesG Robinson
WilliamWisher, Caleb Carr
Prod des:
John Graysmark
TrevorRabin, Angelo Badamenti, Dog Fashion Disco
Main cast:
Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Ralph Brown, IsraelAdurama, Andrew French, Julian Wadham