Exorcist: The Beginning is a 2004 American supernatural horror film directed by Renny Harlin. The film serves as a prequel to The Exorcist (1973). It is the fourth installment in The Exorcist series. It stars Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco, and James D'Arcy.
Exorcist: The Beginning was retooled from Paul Schrader's already completed Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, which Morgan Creek Productions executives feared would be unsuccessful. The film was released in the United States on August 20, 2004, by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Reviews for Exorcist: The Beginning were overwhelmingly negative, and it was a financial failure. Schrader was subsequently allowed to release his version, Dominion, which was somewhat better reviewed than Renny Harlin's film but still earned mostly negative reviews.
A bloodied and terrified priest slowly makes his way across an ancient battlefield full of corpses of soldiers. He reaches the corpse of another priest and tries to take a small demon idol of the head of Pazuzu from his hand, only for the dead priest to briefly come back to life and stop him from taking it. The camera pulls back to reveal that the entire valley is littered with dead soldiers, many of whom have been crucified upside-down.
In Cairo, Egypt in 1949, a young Father Lankester Merrin (played by Skarsgård, who played the same part in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) takes a sabbatical from the Church and devotes himself to history and archaeology as he struggles with his shattered faith. He is haunted especially by an incident in a small village in the occupied Netherlands during World War II, where he served as parish priest: near the end of the war, a sadistic Nazi SS commander, in retaliation for the murder of a German trooper, forced Merrin to participate in arbitrary executions in order to save a full village from slaughter.
Merrin is approached by a collector of antiquities named Semelier who invites him to come to a British excavation in a valley called Derati in the Turkana region of British Kenya. The dig excavates a Christian Byzantine-era church built circa 500 A.D. — long before Christianity had reached that region of Africa. Semelier asks Merrin to recover an ancient relic of a demon, thought to be in the church, before the British can find it. Merrin agrees and travels to the dig site. He is joined by Father Francis, a Vatican scholar who was reassigned from his original task to do missionary work in East Africa in order to ensure the church is not desecrated.
Upon arriving at the site with their translator and guide Chuma, Merrin meets Major Granville, the British Army officer in charge of the dig. He also meets the chief excavator, a brutish man named Jefferies with visible boils on his face and Sarah Novak, a doctor who spent time in a concentration camp during World War II and is haunted by her experiences. In addition, Merrin learns that the diggers are disappearing or leaving in droves because the local tribesmen fear the church is cursed. Merrin witnesses a digger inexplicably experience a seizure.
Merrin, Chuma, and Francis visit the dig site and finds only the dome uncovered; the rest of the church is buried beneath the earth. Merrin discovers that the church is in perfect condition, as though it had been buried immediately after its construction was completed. The three enter the church through the dome and find the place in near-pristine condition, but note two disturbing oddities; the statues of the angels holding weapons point their spears downward instead of the conventional method of either having no weapons or point them triumphantly toward heaven. and that someone has vandalized and desecrated the church by ripping the enormous crucifix from its place on the altar and suspending it with Christ on the cross in an upside-down position. Merrin and Francis deduce the sculptors were trying to depict the angels restraining something that was beneath the church.
Determined to learn more about the archaeological dig, Merrin asks to consult with the lead archaeologist, Monsieur Bession. Sarah tells Merrin that Bession went insane three weeks earlier and was transferred to a mental hospital in Nairobi. Merrin visits Bession's tent at the dig site and sees dozens of drawings of the same demon artifact the collector had asked Merrin to find, which happens to be the head of Pazuzu. Merrin then travels to Nairobi to visit Bession, but when he enters Bession's room, he discovers Bession has carved a swastika on his chest and is speaking through demonic possession in the voice of the sadistic SS commander who tormented Merrin during the war. As Merrin registers these events, Bession slashes his own throat after saying he was "free." Father Gionetti, warden of the asylum, speculates that Bession was not possessed but rather "touched" by a demon, which drove him mad and eventually to suicide. Merrin is very skeptical, but before he returns to the dig site, Father Gionetti gives him the volume of Roman rituals to use in exorcism, although Merrin claims he will never use them.
Upon returning to the village, strange events continue. A local boy is attacked and killed by hyenas that seem to continuously stalk the dig, night and day. His younger brother, Joseph, enters a fugue state after watching his brother get ripped to pieces. The local chief's wife gives birth to a stillborn baby who is covered in maggots and Jefferies, a man Involved with the Dig gets Attacked in the bar. Around the same time, Merrin discovers a passageway leading to a cave underneath the church that houses an ancient pagan temple with the statue of the demon Pazuzu. He also finds evidence that this temple was used to conduct human sacrifices. Upon his return, he sees the local tribe cremate the stillborn baby. This makes Merrin suspicious, because there are stories of an epidemic that wiped out an entire village in the valley 50 years earlier. He had been told that the dead were buried in a graveyard just outside the valley. When he digs up one of the graves of the supposed victims of this plague, it is found to be empty.
Merrin confronts Father Francis about it, and Francis reveals to him the history of the Derati valley and the real reason he was sent there; a great army led by two priests came to the valley searching for the origin of evil 1,500 years prior. When they arrived in the valley, the evil presence consumed them and one killed the other. When the lone surviving priest made it back, Emperor Justinian ordered a church be built over the site, specifically the pagan temple, and then buried to seal the evil force inside of it. Father Francis reveals to Merrin that the builders of the church never meant it to be recorded in Vatican documents, however, a vague reference to it was recorded and found in 1893. Four priests subsequently came to Derati and enlisted the local tribe to help them. All of the tribesmen and the priests disappeared. The Vatican then ordered that the false graveyard be built and stories of a plague spread around to keep people away from the valley while the British happened to stumble upon the site. Francis then reveals that the Vatican sent him to see if the legend was true. When Merrin asks about the legend, Francis reveals that it is believed that the valley in Derati was the traditional spot of Lucifer's fall after the war in heaven. later Merrin, Chuma and Major Granville Discover Jefferies Tied up in the Church, with his Organs gone and Be Pecked by Crows.
The dig's doctor, Sarah, turns out to be the possessed individual and she kills Francis. Merrin has the demon exorcised from her in the tunnels below the church but she dies. Fr. Merrin and Joseph emerge from the church, (once again buried in sand) and history has repeated itself. Everyone at the site was killed by an evil presence from the church, except for one priest. Now, only Father Merrin and the little boy are left as the British soldiers and the local tribes have annihilated each other. Merrin returns to Rome and meets with Semelier at a cafe, explaining he was unable to find the relic, Semelier replies: "But you found something....Didn't you?" As he leaves, Merrin is revealed to be wearing a collar and is now a priest again, having regained his faith in God, after defeating the demon with holy exorcism rituals.