Set in 1949, this is the story of Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgaard), a disillusioned former priest now acting as an archaeologist (and full-time alcoholic) sent to Kenya to find an ancient artifact believed to be in a church that logically shouldn't even be there. He gets caught up in strange goings on amongst the voodoo practising locals, perhaps unleashing pure evil...and some seriously malicious butterflies. Various red herrings, children-devouring hyenas, inverted crosses, and our main character having Nazi flashbacks ensue.
Let's get a few things out of the way right now. 1) I'm not exactly a fan of 'The Exorcist'- generally well-made, disturbing and a good film overall, but slow and overrated. Personally, I prefer 'The Omen'. 2) This film has a dubious history, with original director Paul Schrader being fired after actually completing his film, a film the money-men didn't like. In his place came Renny Harlin, a very different director, but the idea of funding two versions of the same film seems like an unnecessary gamble to me.
It's a gamble that, whilst not really paying off in any way, I kinda sorta almost liked this film. And that's probably the kindest sentence you'll ever read about it, actually. But I thought it was OK for a B movie, and very different to the other films; kind of a cross between 'The Mummy Returns' and 'The Exorcist II', only not nearly as bad as the latter.
Skarsgaard is the perfect replacement for Max von Sydow and is not only believable and adds depth to this silly film, but he's the chief reason to almost kinda maybe see it. Visually the film looks gorgeous, especially the exterior shots, and Harlan approaches it with a sense of over-the-top fun to take away some of the burden of Skarsgaard's rather brooding character and the sometimes rather nasty subject. And yes, I actually LIKED the scene where CGI hyenas rip apart a child, it might've been silly and it sure was offensive, but hey, it's not every day you see a scene like that, is it?
I also found the story to be rather intriguing too, as was the main character. However there were problems. The flashbacks to Merrin's Nazi past were jarring and seemed tacked-on to me. Also Ben Cross' role is a pointless and annoying one, ditto that young priest who just seemed to be waiting around for someone to hand him a script.
However- and this is the main reason why I cannot exactly recommend the film- my main gripe is with the final third of the film. After a wonderfully atmospheric set-up, the film becomes a collection of stock-standard 'Exorcist' schtick with the silly voices and what not, and nearly ruins everything that came before it. Harlan and co get really, really lazy in this section of the film, and it's a shame. Oh, well, perhaps we'll see Schrader's version one day and maybe it'll be better.
Overall, this one isn't the stinker I'd feared or heard about, it's a pretty watchable B movie that makes one wish there was a 2 1/2 star rating here. Lower your expectations and ignore the dodgy butterfly attack. At least 75% of the film isn't just a retread of the previous films, just that last portion.