One of the best stories about Hollywood filmmaking has to be the making of the oddly titled “Dominion- Prequel to The Exorcist.” Cobbled together from various stories, interviews, news reports and Tinseltown, the tale, as I understand it, goes like this: the Morgan Creek company had planned to produce a prequel to William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” From a financial and artistic standpoint, this wasn’t a bad idea at all, as the “The Exorcist” still maintains it credibility, even today with horror movies fans and film buffs in general as “the scariest movie ever made.” Making a follow-up has never been easy, as evidenced by John Boorman’s ambitious but wildly overreaching “Exorcist II- The Heretic” and even Friedkin’s “The Guardian,” a cinematic cousin of sorts, would become a failure. Morgan Creek had their hands on the franchise, as they produced “The Exorcist III” in 1990, William Peter Blatty’s murky but truly frightening follow-up that received strong reviews and initially muscular box office, only to crash and burn. A key detail regarding that movie (which I’ll reference again later) is that the studio believed it was too cerebral, paid for additional filming of more sensational, gory and explicit footage and had key plot elements cut from the film. While not incoherent, “The Exorcist III” suffered from post-production meddling that compromised Blatty’s carefully structured vision.
The first announcement I can recall of “Exorcist: Dominion” (its original title) was around 2003, when the film was announced, along with a first photo unveiling. It appeared the film was scheduled to open around the same time of the other big fall movie from Warner Brothers (which distributed the films Morgan Creek financed), “The Last Samurai.” After the late filmmaker John Frankenheimer and Liam Neeson were replaced with Paul Schrader and Stellan Skarsgard, a $40 million budget was allotted and production went without incident. Despite Morgan Creek reading and approving the screenplay (which was written by “Terminator 2” writer William Wisher Jr. and “The Alienist” novelist Caleb Carr), studio executives were terribly dismayed by the initial rough cut screening.
Reportedly, the footage lacked sensational horror movies elements that genre fans would like and make the film financially successful. These were strikingly similar complaints made regarding Blatty’s first cut of “The Exorcist III,” with ample additional footage and cut scenes made by the urging of Morgan Creek. Schrader, on the other hand, wasn’t given the same opportunity as Blatty and was, instead, replaced by director Renny Harlin. Using much of the same sets, some of the same cast and a reworked, more commercially appealing (and dumbed-down) screenplay, Harlin made his version of the same film. It’s also worth mentioning that Morgan Creek shelled out another $40 million for this second version. Harlin’s “Exorcist: The Beginning” was released late in the summer of 2004, was met by horrible reviews and made a substantial but not remarkable profit. It was widely believed that Schrader’s version would be indefinitely shelved or destroyed. What happened next was kind of a miracle.
Schrader managed to get an unfinished but watchable copy of his “Exorcist” prequel shown at the 2005 Brussels International Fantasy Festival, where it was warmly received. One of the film’s biggest fans was no less than Roger Ebert. Morgan Creek caved and agreed to allow Schrader to complete the film (on his dime) and distribute it. Schrader’s “Dominion- Prequel to The Exorcist” was barely released in a small batch of theaters on the same day as “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” Although it died a quick death at the box office, Schrader’s film, which many believed would be forever unseen, finally had its day in theaters…and it’s a really good film.
I’m a big fan of Mr. Harlin, but entrusting the director of “Die Hard 2,” “Cliffhanger,” and “A Nightmare on Elm St 4” (his biggest hits) to direct a supernatural thriller plays as well as it reads. Schrader, a frequent Scorsese collaborator and an accomplished filmmaker in his own right, takes issues of Catholic guilt, theology and inner turmoil with utter seriousness. His take on this story (which is quiet, patient and intellectual, whereas Harlin’s film is shrill, cliched and grotesque) is personal and smart.
Finally, the synopsis: Skarsgard plays Father Merrin (the priest Max Von Sydow portrayed in “The Exorcist”) as a young man, living in Africa in personal exile. The reason for his essentially hiding out where no one can find him: the first scene of the film, which is quite powerful, shows Merrin and a group of villagers being terrorized by Nazis during the Holocaust. Merrin’s inability to save those around him breaks him of his faith. While establishing himself as an archeologist, Merrin uncovers a buried temple with a dubious past. The unveiling of the temple unleashes a demon that posses a young man, Cheche (Billy Crawford, in an outstanding performance) and forces Merrin to reconsider his stance on faith.
Schrader paces this film like a 1970’s film, assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that an audience (and Morgan Creek) would accept an emphasis on mood and character over cheap thrills. He takes his time getting to the spooky stuff, making the sudden turn to strange territory all the more jarring. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro makes this elegant, and the screenplay has sharp dialog (Merrin’s explanation of his atheism: “I chose good, evil happened”).
Skarsgard is solid and he’s supported well by Clara Bellar and Gabriel Mann. Cheche is a great character- we immediately sympathize with the character and his unusual transformation gradually introduces the story’s supernatural aspect. The pain and guilt the main characters feel about surviving the Holocaust comes across in the performances , and there’s a brief, eerie dream sequence that references both Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and the original “Exorcist.”
There are subplots about tribesman and cruel British soldiers that wallow in stereotypes and never draw us in. The film missteps whenever it leaves the central four characters. The overall end result is uneven, with some scenes feeling unfinished or cut short. The sparse special effects also have an on-again, off-again quality, as does the music, which often resembles a temp score.
The exorcism scene is refreshingly different and strange, with Merrin faced with a bargain right out of Faust and somewhat similar to Satan’s temptation of Christ (“all this could be yours”). The compelling quality of this sequence, which brings us right back to the Holocaust opener, is followed by a subpar wrap-up. We get more of an art movie finish than an earth-shaking meeting between good and evil.
“Dominion” is cool to see just as a survivor of movie studio bureaucracy but, flaws and all, it’s still a gripping, thought-provoking work.