”The Exorcist” priest Father Merrin was kicking demonic butt long before Buffy was born, but a chance for Liam Neeson to tell his story onscreen nearly died earlier this month with director John Frankenheimer. But the prequel has risen from the dead, according to The Hollywood Reporter, now that producers have targeted a new director, Paul Schrader.
The fourth film in the series has been in development since the successful 2000 theatrical rerelease of the 1973 original, which included several minutes of previously unseen footage. The new screenplay depicts a younger Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow’s character) and his first battle against Satan in an African setting a quarter-century before the events in the first ”Exorcist.” Thriller master Frankenheimer (”The Manchurian Candidate,” HBO’s recent ”Path to War”) came aboard last August and cast Neeson. Caleb Carr, who wrote the scary bestseller ”The Alienist,” did a script polish. In June, however, the 72-year-old Frankenheimer dropped out of the project to undergo back surgery, and a month later, complications from the surgery led to a fatal stroke.
Now, producers are in talks with ”Affliction” director Schrader, whose screenwriting and directing projects tend to focus on creepy scenarios of sin, redemption, and violence. (He scripted ”Taxi Driver,” ”Raging Bull,” ”The Last Temptation of Christ,” and ”Bringing Out the Dead” for Martin Scorsese.) His most recent directing project is ”Auto Focus,” the story of ”Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane’s kinky sex life and violent death, starring Greg Kinnear as Crane. That opens in October, about a month before ”Exorcist 4:1” starts shooting. Neeson, currently onscreen opposite Harrison Ford in ”K-19: The Widowmaker,” will be seen next with Leonardo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s long-awaited ”Gangs of New York,” due at Christmas.