“Exorcist: The Beginning” opens in the Middle Ages with a bloodied priest staggering through the carnage of a terrible battle. He finds the body of another priest holding the head of a Pazuzu statuette in his lifeless hand, and the camera swoops out to reveal thousands of men crucified upside down.
Next, we’re in Cairo in 1949, where Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) is drinking away his sorrows, having lost faith after his experiences during the Second World War. He is approached by a shady dealer in antiquities called Semelier (Ben Cross) who asks him to find a demonic artifact buried in a Byzantine Christian church in Kenya. The church shouldn’t exist in that location because it dates from before Christianity reached that part of Africa.
On his arrival at the site in the Derati valley, Merrin meets loathsome head excavator, Jefferies (Alan Ford); a kindly doctor, Sarah Novak (Izabella Scorupco); Father Francis (James D’Arcy), a younger priest sent by the Vatican, and Major Granville (Julian Wadham), the British officer overseeing the dig. Merrin learns that the superstitious workmen from the local Turkana tribe won’t enter for fear of evil spirits.
Gaining access to the church, Merrin and Francis discover some unsettling features. The weapons held by the statuary point downwards rather than heavenwards, and the effigy of Christ on the Cross has been vandalized and inverted. Meanwhile, sinister events unfold in the camp and nearby tribal village. The lead archaeologist Bession (Patrick O’Kane) has been carted away to a sanatorium in Nairobi after being plagued by demonic visions. When Merrin visits him, the man carves a swastika on his chest with a piece of glass and speaks in a voice that takes the former priest back to the event that caused his crisis of faith.