Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Renny Harlin's pokey, blood-spattered, cheap-scare-larded prequel tells the story of disillusioned Father Lankester Merrin — the veteran expeller of demons played by Max von Sydow in THE EXORCIST (1973) — whose faith was lost in Nazi-occupied Holland and recovered in British postcolonial Africa. The sixth-century prologue establishes a tone of garish cruelty: A lone priest, disheveled and traumatized, wanders through a dusty sea of corpses — bludgeoned, impaled, nailed to inverted crosses — and finds a small, grotesque likeness of the demon Pazuzu. Flash forward to 1949: Archeologist Lancaster Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, who has some of von Sydow's solemn gravity) is lollygagging around Cairo, drinking and doing occasional odd jobs, when he's approached by a shady fellow with a remarkable story. A British army regiment has stumbled across what appears to be a sixth-century Byzantine church, buried in Kenya's remote Turkana region where no such church should be. Would Merrin, for a substantial fee, consider recovering certain antiquities the shady fellow's employers are certain lie within? Merrin dislikes the teller and doubts the tale, but accepts the offer. Accompanied by eager young Father Francis (James D'Arcy), Merrin finds the excavation site fogged with fear. Supervising archeologist Bession (Patrick O'Kane) has gone extravagantly mad and been taken to an asylum in Nairobi. Local laborers believe the church is haunted and won't go inside. Drunken overseer Jeffries (Alan Ford) has developed a disfiguring skin disease, snarling hyenas prowl in broad daylight and camp nurse Sarah (Izabella Scorupco) reads tarot cards and frets. Merrin and Father Francis find the church desecrated, and a sweet-faced child (Remy Sweeney) begins having strange, bed-rocking seizures — could he be possessed? This film began life as a John Frankenheimer project; after his sudden death it was taken over by Paul Schrader, who shot a complete film from a script by William Wisher and novelist Caleb Carr. It starred Skarsgard, but had a completely different supporting cast. Executives at Morgan Creek, who produced the film, hated Schrader's film and hired action specialist Harlin to direct a whole new version with a reworked screenplay replete with swarms of flies and tacky CGI possession effects; the tediously formulaic result requires Merrin, purportedly a man of great intelligence, to creep around unlit, unmapped caves at night, alone and armed only with an untrustworthy lamp and to deny the possibility of possession long after many an unbeliever would have reached for the Book of Rites. If God is in the details, the devil surely owns the hoary cliches.