For entirely idiotic reasons that I’ll explain later, Paul Schrader’s Dominion: The Original Prequel to the Exorcist
the very first movie with the word "prequel" in the title is currently
playing in just a handful of theaters around the country. When I first
heard about this limited engagement, I knew I had to see Dominion,
even though it meant braving 3+ hours of Memorial Day weekend traffic
to get to the nearest theater showing it. In this case, the nearest
theater was a ratty multiplex deep in the bowels of Oceanside,
California. Up until now, I always thought "limited run" meant "arty"
and "high-end", but that sure didn’t apply to this theater, and it
definitely didn’t apply to this film.
But I digress. The reason I endured such hardship to see this latest sequel to the Exorcist is that I’m a huge fan of the entire Exorcist
saga. Not so much the individual films, you see; Rather, I find great
entertainment at witnessing the never-ending, futile attempts of both
Warner Brothers and Morgan Creek Studios to provide a decent follow-up
to one of the scariest movies ever made, and their total lack of
understanding of what made the original Exorcist so scary.
This is actually the fourth sequel (and the second prequel!) to William Friedkin’s 1974 horror classic The Exorcist. To be honest, I’m amazed they made more than one, especially after the colossal disaster that was 1979’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, a film that (according to original Exorcist
scribe William Peter Blatty) was literally laughed out of theaters.
Warner Brothers desperately recut the film in its second week, all to
no avail. The Heretic remains one of the silliest horror films not to mention one of the most laughable sequels ever made.
Which is why it’s so surprising to see how much of Dominion‘s story draws from events established in The Heretic.
In this film, we journey to post-World War II Africa, where a young
Father Lankester Merrin (the titular character played by Max Von Sydow
in both the original and Part II, and played by Stellan Skarsgard here)
is involved in an extraordinary archeological dig. He’s on indefinite
sabbatical from the priesthood following a traumatic experience with
the Nazis during the war, an experience that has caused him to lose his
faith. But his demons return (quite literally) when a Christian church
is unearthed deep in the heart of Africa, dating back to the 5th
century, long before Christianity should have ever come to this region.
(Presumably, this is the same church depicted in The Heretic as
being impossibly difficult to get to, the same church where Richard
Burton gets a big foam rock bounced off his noggin to the tune of
"Lullaby of Broadway" hey, I told you it’s a laughable film).
The mystery deepens; It appears the church was buried almost
immediately after it was built, and Merrin and his cohorts open a
sarcophagus that leads into a cave containing a large pagan idol. (No
one ever calls the idol by name, but it’s quite clearly supposed to be
Pazuzu, the Sumerian demon mentioned endlessly, to increasing mirth, in
the second film). As the church is excavated, it becomes clear that
some sort of evil has been loosed upon the surrounding village.
Meanwhile, Father Merrin has taken in a young vagrant (played with
suitably creepy affect by newcomer Billy Crawford), and after he and a
local nurse restore the boy’s health, they suspect that either he is
the source of the evil, or the village’s only hope of redemption. But
that redemption may come too late; The British Army, called in to
protect the church’s treasures from looters, are marching inexorably
toward a bloody showdown with the natives, who are convinced that
Christians are the ones bringing the evil upon their village.
If this synopsis gives you a sense of déjà vu, then you might have been one of the three or four people who saw last summer’s Exorcist: The Beginning,
a film with the same basic plot, same lead actor, same characters, and
filmed on the same sets. The sad tale of this production is so
well-known by now that it hardly bears repeating, but in case you
haven’t heard, director Paul Schrader was originally tasked with
helming a prequel to the Exorcist (an unlikely choice, given he was the director of films like Affliction and Auto Focus).
When the suits at Morgan Creek felt his film was "not scary enough"
(studio-speak for "not gory enough"), they fired Schrader and brought
in master hack Renny "Cutthroat Island" Harlin to start over
from scratch with a slightly altered storyline, a new script, and
bloodier special effects. Some actors returned for the new version,
others did not. (Harlin even recast the female lead nurse with a
supermodel-type because, in his own paraphrased words, people go to the
movies to see beautiful people. Never mind that the character was
originally supposed to be Jewish; Harlin only had to throw in a few
poorly thought-out lines of dialogue to explain how a statuesque blonde
bore the numeric tattoo of a Nazi concentration camp.)
Well, the suits got what they wanted; Harlin’s version was downright grotesque. Nearly every frame of Exorcist: The Beginning
dripped with blood. We got to see young children shot point-blank in
the head, a woman with blood pouring out of her uterus, and a loving
close-up of a stillborn infant covered in maggots. Fittingly, the movie
was dead on arrival by the time it hit theaters. So let’s hope the good
people at Morgan Creek have learned that age-old lesson about being
careful what you wish for.
There were initially plans to release Exorcist: The Beginning
as a two-disc set, with Schrader’s version as a lengthy bonus feature.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that release: Somehow,
someway, Dominion: The Original Prequel to the Exorcist, Schrader’s film, ended up in theaters. You don’t have to be in touch with God or
the Devil to figure out why: Morgan Creek is desperately trying to
recoup their losses after wasting millions of dollars to totally scrap
one movie and film another, only to still end up with a bomb.
Obviously, they’re hoping that by releasing this movie on a smaller
scale, word of mouth will build and Dominion will become a
sleeper hit. After seeing a grand total of six people in the theater
with me (including two who walked out early), it’s clear that’s not
going to happen.
Which is (almost) too bad, because in a lot of ways, Schrader’s film is
an improvement over its predecessor. It’s not nearly as gross, even
though Maggot Baby does make an unfortunate return appearance (though,
it’s not shot quite as lovingly as Harlin filmed it). The plot of
Schrader’s version is far more coherent, and the characters are
actually allowed to display real personalities, instead of merely being
props to be killed in various gruesome ways.
There’s no silly Indiana Jones-like setup, where Father Merrin meets a
man in a café who assigns him to go on the dig. And the traumatic
incident with the Nazis (which is replayed about a billion times in
Harlin’s version) makes more sense here, and fits a lot better in the
context of the story.
In this version, you get a balanced conflict between the natives and
the British soldiers. It’s not a dreadfully PC evil white
men-versus-peaceful natives type of story, nor is it overtly racist.
The opposing groups both do atrocious things, but they each have their
own motives that the film takes time to explain. There’s a British
major (played by Julian Wadham in both versions) who was a cartoon
villain in Harlin’s film, but here is a deeply tortured soul. He does
an unspeakable act, but in the end, we realize that it’s literally the
Devil that made him do it, and he pays the ultimate price for it.
I’d take this movie any day over Harlin’s silly approach. Exorcist: The Beginning
was almost like a spiritual whodunit, where you were supposed to take
in all the clues and guess who was possessed by the Devil before the
final act. In Schrader’s version, it’s clear who’s possessed early on,
but he appears to be the sort of director so rare these days who
understands you don’t need a twist ending to tell an interesting story.
But ultimately, Schrader’s version doesn’t reach a worthwhile
conclusion, either. When it started, it really seemed like it would be
a more serious version of the story. The first hour may not be
brilliant, but it’s certainly entertaining enough. But by the time
Billy Crawford’s character suddenly turns bald and hovers cross-legged
in a blue light and proclaims, "I am perfection!" I suddenly realized
this version would end up being just as silly as Harlin’s.
The big problem with Exorcist
sequels, in my opinion, is that once you get to the part where
someone’s got a case of full-blown possession by the Devil, there’s
really nowhere to go. You can’t outsmart the Devil, you can’t blow up
the Devil, you can’t kill the Devil in a big shootout. So the only
remaining means by which to defeat Satan is by shouting at him. A lot.
Which means all of the sequels (Harlin’s version, Schrader’s version,
even William Peter Blatty’s own Exorcist III: Legion) end with
the Devil basically getting sick and tired of the constant yelling and
the burning holy water, and just plain giving up. Dramatically, it’s an
utterly unsatisfying way to defeat your main villain.
My initial thought was that film schools could use the two versions of
this prequel as a case study on how different directors approach things
differently. But then I realized the stories are so similar, and so
similarly mediocre, that there’s really not a whole lot to compare and
contrast. Better then for film schools to use these prequels as an
instructional guide on how not to make a horror movie.
I can only recommend this film to devoted Exorcist fans who might have seen The Beginning,
and can discuss point-counterpoint the differences between the two
films, and who can spot the handful of very, very obscure references to
the Linda Blair original. (But only those fans who happen to live
across the street from a theater showing it. If it’s a 3+ hour drive to
see Dominion, then you can most assuredly wait for the DVD.)
Anyone else, I think, will have no idea what the point of this movie is, or what it has to do with the original Exorcist. As Roger Ebert once said in his review of the very first movie prequel Butch and Sundance: The Early Days,
a good prequel needs to "make its characters into the kinds of
three-dimensional people who’d be intrinsically interesting even if
they’d never gone on to be famous and inspire a hit movie. If the
heroes of this film were named Sam and Joe, we’d be totally baffled by
it." Well, I’m fully aware that Father Lankester Merrin will eventually
become the very famous titular character of The Exorcist, but I’m still totally baffled by both of these prequels.