Hell hath no fury like a studio scorned

The suits wanted projectile vomiting and spinning heads in their hotly awaited ...xorcist prequel. But Paul Schrader committed sacrilege by offering up a historical, angst-ridden epic instead. Nick Hasted on a Hollywood battle between good and evil

Paul Schrader is being exorcised. Last week, he handed in his final cut of Exorcist IV: The Beginning, the $45m prequel to William Friedkin's 1973 horror masterpiece, and reaction from its makers Morgan Creek was apoplectic. According to a well-placed source, the studio chiefs waited in vain for the spinning heads and projectile vomiting they believed they had paid for. The trailers now running in US cinemas, comfortingly heavy on iconic scenes and Mike Oldfield music from Friedkin's money-spinner, would have to be pulled. What they were watching instead was some kind of post-colonial period-piece, a moody, intimate examination of faith. What they were watching, in fact, was the script they had paid for, which, rumour has it, they simply hadn't read.

Schrader and the studio are now at loggerheads. They can't sack him, and he won't resign. The option of hauling cast and crew back together for reshoots in its Moroccan location is financially insane. But Morgan Creek are loathe to give Schrader post-production money to finish his film. It seems a classic Hollywood case of greed versus integrity, of money men not realising they're paying for art till it's too late. But then, this film was trouble from the start.

The idea of another Exorcist, after the botched flops of John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and original writer William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III (a Morgan Creek production in 1990) seems bizarre in itself; as a franchise, it's hardly Star Wars. But, somewhere in the studio's bowels, three scripts had been written anyway, before Caleb Carr stumbled on one, and begged to try himself. Carr, a serious novelist, was a man obsessed with the psychology of evil, dark episodes in history, and ethical crises. He was never likely to write a script of strategically placed projectile vomit. Instead, his version of The Exorcist took Max Von Sydow's eponymous hero, Father Lankester Merrin, back to Holland in 1944, when, in Sophie's Choice-style, he is told by the Nazis to pick someone to be shot. In Kenya in 1947, now a missionary with his faith in tatters, he then stumbles on the devil he will face again in 1973. Carr believes this sweeping epic was read and liked by someone at Morgan Creek. But more important, it seems, was the fact that he finished it just as the re-release of the original Exorcist unexpectedly made $25m. The green light was thoughtlessly pressed.

The veteran, if latterly safe, John Frankenheimer was signed to direct, before his sudden death in 2002. Liam Neeson, cast as Father Merrin, then passed as the schedule changed. Paul Schrader, writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, writer-director of Mishima and Affliction, a man whose Calvinist background made him more serious even than Carr about faith, doubt and devils, and who had not made a studio film since the disastrous flop Cat People in 1982, happened to be in Morocco, the film's main location, when Frankenheimer fell ill. For no better reason, he got the job. Soon, Stellan Skarsgard, a regular in Lars von Trier's extremist films, had unexpectedly replaced Neeson as the lead.

Speaking from the set to website www.CountingDown.com, Skarsgård saw the contradictions from the start. "It's a big Hollywood, big-budget movie. But it's directed by Paul Schrader, who's an interesting independent director, and it's being played by me, who normally does weird little films. I don't know if Morgan Creek are being daring or stupid."

Schrader, at least, sounding almost giddy to be back with the big boys, believed he had made his position clear. Rather than compete with a classic, he told www.darkhorizons.com, "you really have to stay away from all the things that people identify with the Friedkin film... turning heads and projectile vomit... the girl on the bed and the throwing of holy water." Instead, this would be part John Ford British-colonials-versus-the-natives adventure, part Indiana Jones action film, part, he grudgingly conceded, "what you would think of as an Exorcist movie, and part the journey of Father Merrin's soul, one of the introspective movies, that are sort of my forte."

"It's not necessary that it has 'Exorcist' in the title," Skarsgård bluntly admitted, "but I believe that Warner Brothers [the film's ultimate backer] is happy to have it there. If a movie is a good one, it doesn't matter what the title is."

Sadly, Morgan Creek seems to think just the opposite. The sudden coincidence of a brand name they had an interest in and box-office success, and the chain-reaction caused by Frankenheimer's death, apparently stampeded them into making any Exorcist film. Unfortunately for them, the one they got was Schrader's, Skarsgard's and Carr's. Read the small print, they say of Hollywood deals; these businessmen didn't even understand the credits on their script's front page. Perhaps, too, they've never seen The Exorcist. Because Schrader's film - however flawed it may be - sounds very much in the adventurous spirit of Friedkin's sombre, slow, spiritually concerned work, hardly an obvious audience-pleaser, even in its more open-minded day.

"It's the film that seriously makes the closest attempt to get back to elements that made the first one so great," co-star Gabriel Mann claimed, before his bosses' own crisis of faith. "[It has] a kind of creeping, growing eeriness that permeates inside you until you realise you're really scared and freaked out." Adds Carr: "Audiences should expect for things not to happen the way they're used to... to think about things that are both scary and mysterious."

Morgan Creek may yet cast Schrader out, and break the back of his film with cuts and splatter. History shows such mutilations - from The Magnificent Ambersons to Heaven's Gate - always flop anyway. They'd be better advised to put the weird creature Schrader has brought back from Africa on the screen. Who knows? It might scare us to death, after all.

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