Father Lankester Merrin is a Catholic priest who has lost his faith. During World War II in his native Holland, he witnessed Nazi atrocities. Worse, he was forced by the Nazis to participate in one of them—that or be “responsible” for the death of dozens.
It’s now 1949, and Merrin has resigned his vocation to work as an archeologist. In that regard, he’s contacted by a wealthy antiquities collector about a possible job. It seems a fifth-century Byzantine church has been discovered in a remote corner of Kenya, a church that shouldn’t exist, as Christianity didn’t reach that part of the world until a thousand years later. More strange: the entire church was buried as soon as it was completed, meaning the antiquities within are in immaculate condition. The collector is particularly interested in one small item: a sculpture of a demonic head.
Once at the dig, Merrin finds he has an unwanted assistant, an eager young American priest, Father Francis, who is there at the urging of the Vatican. Merrin also befriends the missionary doctor, Sarah, who tends to the locals.
The local Turkana tribesmen, while helping to excavate the church, are suspicious of the white men who want to dig up what apparently was intended to stay buried. Moreover, their folklore tells of a time hundreds of years earlier when a plague of some sort killed all the people in the area. The mystery deepens once the men gain access inside of the church. Gigantic sculptures of angels guard the crypt, and all their weapons point downward. More disturbing, though, is that the giant sculpture of Christ on the cross has been broken off at its base and re-hung—upside down.
Spooky happenings start to overtake the missionary station and the dig site. And despite his loss of faith, Merrin begins to wonder if Father Francis isn’t right: After the war in heaven, this is where Lucifer fell to earth.
Father Merrin’s faith has been shaken to the point of despairing cynicism, but a tiny spark remains within him. And despite his gloomy outlook on life, he is still a kind man willing to help the hurting and less fortunate. Father Francis, despite being a bit overeager, is also courageous and willing to put his life on the line for others. Sarah, the missionary doctor, has her own troubled past to run from, but she sacrificially lives in primitive conditions to provide medical care for the Turkana tribesmen.
Exorcist: The Beginning is nearly overrun with a spiritual subtext, most of it Roman Catholic. It features many rituals, including men praying the rosary, praying the “Our Father” to a crucifix and a woman wearing a Saint Joseph medal for protection. Ironically, that same woman uses Tarot cards to try to see her future. (That occult toehold she allows in her life has dire consequences later in the movie.)
A flashback scene of an ancient battlefield shows hundreds of men crucified upside down. In a flashback sequence repeated several times, a Nazi officer taunts Father Merrin: “God is not here today, priest.” A demon later taunts him with the same line. A bishop in Nairobi hands Merrin a book of Catholic rites and rituals, including one for exorcism. At the dig site, a local man and his two sons make a point of saying they are Christians, unlike their fellow Turkana. Witch doctors, unhappy with the white man’s religion and medicine, attempt their own exorcism of a young boy.
Much of the film's demonic activity is accompanied by violence and gore. [Spoiler Warning] For example, the first sign that Sarah has become possessed is profuse bleeding from her genitals. (We see her bloody thighs and blood-soaked nightdress.) We also see a fairly explicit scene of a woman giving birth to a dead baby covered in blood and maggots.
A demonic sculpture in the crypt below the church disgorges clouds of bluebottle flies when touched. (Another name for Satan, Beelzebub, means “Lord of the Flies.”) Sarah’s bedroom is later infested with the flies, and an occult symbol is scrawled on the wall in blood. A demon-possessed woman’s face is covered with bloody gashes. Her eyes are yellow, and she is able to contort her body in ways it was not designed for.
A woman, wondering what evil is overtaking the camp, says, “Sometimes I think the best view of God is from hell.” A man talks of a medieval legend in which an entire convent in France became demon possessed. In discussing Lucifer’s rebellion against God, a man comments, “You can’t even trust angels, can you?” Merrin, at first unwilling to believe in the possibility of demons, says, “It’s easier to talk about evil as an entity. But it’s inside us. It’s part of the human condition.”
Finally, Merrin’s small spark of faith is reignited when he realizes the magnitude of the evil he faces. He prays, “Lord, forgive my disbelief. I need you now.” He daubs himself with holy water and prays continually during the final showdown with the demon. He comforts a small boy by saying that a dead woman “is with God now.”
Sarah sometimes wears a low-cut blouse, and one scene shows her in a rather flimsy nightdress. We also see her showering from behind, with a brief glimpse of the side of her breast. She and Merrin share a kiss that starts to become passionate before they are interrupted. An obnoxious dig supervisor pesters Sarah to have sex with him, sometimes doing so in a crude manner.
Possessed by the demon, Sarah taunts Merrin about their stolen kiss, using many extremely crude sexual epithets and once straddling his prone body while making extremely suggestive sexual movements. (They’re both fully dressed.)
When told that demon-possessed nuns had an orgy with goats, Merrin dismisses it by saying, “They were just horny—and inventive.”
Extreme. Especially when it comes to gore. An ancient battlefield shows bodies skewered by spears and swords. There are several shots of decapitated heads. A Nazi officer executes several people with pointblank shots to the head. A pack of hyenas attacks a boy, literally tearing him limb from limb, and crushing his bones.
A man falls into violent convulsions and foams at the mouth. Another carves occult symbols into his skin, then slashes his own throat; blood spurts from the wound. A bloody, eviscerated body hanging inside the church is picked at by ravens. One bird pecks an eyeball out of the bloody skull. The birds also attack one another and eat the dead ones. Turkana witch doctors are about to stab a boy until the demon fights back, causing wounds to burst open in their skin and their bones to break.
A British officer executes a Turkana warrior. A battle between British troops and Turkana warriors ensues, with men shot, speared and bayoneted. A man commits suicide by putting a pistol in his mouth and pulling the trigger. A man, thinking he is pinning a butterfly to a board, raises his bloody hands and realizes he’s been working on a dead raven. A demon-possessed woman has vicious gashes in her face.
Crude or Profane Language
About five uses of the f-word, once in a sexual context. We hear a vulgar euphemism for a man’s genitals. And there are a few milder profanities as well. God’s name is frequently invoked properly, but twice it is abused (once combined with "d--n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Merrin is a heavy drinker at the beginning of the movie. When offered a drink, he says, “I shouldn’t, but my will is weak.” Sarah asks if Merrin wants tea “or something more substantial.” He takes the latter. A few characters smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Jeffries, the dig supervisor, has bloody pustules all over his face, and the word “rotten” does not adequately describe his mossy teeth. A British officer shows contempt for the Turkana, calling them “bloody savages.”
Exorcist: The Beginning is a very disturbing movie. It has a disturbing history, too. After the film was first shot under a different director, the studio was unhappy with the results—being more of a character study of Father Merrin, it apparently wasn’t scary enough—so it hired a new director, new actors and shot the film again in its entirety.
The result is a patently creepy prequel to The Exorcist. It alludes to the story of Satan’s rebellion and fall recounted in Isaiah 14:12-20. (Although saying that Lucifer fell to earth in a specific place is stretching the point.) And its satanic imagery and special effects give it an oppressive feel. The constant onslaught of gore and gross-out images makes it almost too much to sit through. (Some poor filmmaking contributes to this feeling, although for different reasons.)
Interestingly, Christianity is portrayed positively throughout, and Merrin’s period of doubt is at least understandable in the context of the Nazi atrocities he lived through. Equally interesting is the fact that the occult isn't glamorized, per se. Though it gets loads of screen time, it’s shown to be the evil that it is. The central spiritual problem, instead, comes in a flawed image of Satan. Yes, he’s a powerful fallen archangel, and man on his own is no match for him. But without saying it explicitly, the film implies that the fight between Satan and God is a battle of equals. In reality, God created Satan and could “uncreate” him with a single word; in this story, it’s a tough fight.
It also promotes an unhealthy fear of Satan, at least for the Christian. In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote that men tend to fall into two positions with regard to the Evil One: They either dismiss him as a myth, or they are preoccupied with a terrible fear of him. Both serve Satan’s purposes, according to Lewis. What’s missing from Exorcist: The Beginning is an understanding of Satan’s wiles and how subtle he can be in seducing people into evil. The movie does stress several times that Satan is the father of lies, but usually he’s all blood, gore and swarming flies.