A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Paul Schrader’s “Dominion Prequel To The Exorcist”. I celebrate the films 15th anniversary and the lasting impression of a movie that almost never was. When director John Frankenheimer dropped out before filming began, frequent Scorsese screenwriter Paul Schrader, took over as director. Well into production with filming almost complete, Schrader’s film was cancelled and shelved due to the studios concerns about the film’s commercial viability. New director Renny Harlin was hired to re-shoot the entire film with a more mainstream “horror” approach. Both versions suffered with poor box office performances, but Schrader’s film is the better film. It’s intelligent and subversive, with a quietly mesmerizing performance from Stellan Skarsgård. No other film in the series has a genuine marriage to each of its previous films, the way that Schrader’s does. The film Schrader has made is about the difficulty and necessity of keeping faith and a lot more compelling than just another “demon feature”. Call it a failure if you want, but it’s an outstanding failure.
While nothing can top 1973’s “The Exorcist”, directed by “The French Connection” director William Friedkin. Home studio to “The Exorcist”, Warner Bros released two sequels, a tv series (which went off the air after one season) and two prequel attempts, with “Exorcist: The Beginning” and “Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist”, that would lead up to the events of the 1973 film.
Director John Frankenheimer (“Grand Prix”, “Ronin”, “The Manchurian Candidate”) was originally hired to direct the prequel, but withdrew before filming had started due to health concerns. Sadly he died a month later. Writer Paul Schrader best known as a frequent screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s films: “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “The Last Temptation Of Christ” and “Bringing Out The Dead”.
Schrader also wrote screenplays for other directors, until becoming a filmmaker himself. He pulled double duty as writer and director for: “American Gigolo”, “Light Of Day”, “Affliction” and “Autofocus”. His best work to date as a filmmaker, came in 2017 with “First Reformed” with Ethan Hawke. It was the second best film of the year on my list in 2017 and was nominated at the Oscars for best screenplay.
One of Schrader’s most underrated (other than “Light Of Day”), was his prequel to “The Exorcist”. Schrader had replaced Frankenheimer, agreeing to do the film because he found the script and the studio’s approach intriguing. The film was shot across two continents, where exteriors were shot on a set built 45 minutes outside of Marrakesh in Morocco, and the interiors were shot at the famed Cinecittà studios in Rome. Production lasted 10 weeks, with five in Morocco and five in Rome.
Schrader originally wanted to shoot the film where the story actually takes place, in Turkana County, Kenya. It had proved to be implausible because of the area’s war-torn and unstable political situation at the time. Originally titled “Exorcist: The Beginning”, Schrader was well into production and had nearly completed filming, to where the studio had even begun the film to be marketed with a teaser trailer being released). Then it was shelved by co-funding studio Morgan Creek Productions over concerns about the film’s commercial viability.
Despite Schrader having faithfully directed the script the studio had developed, Morgan Creek was said to have had a case of “buyer’s remorse” upon seeing the result in rough cut form, believing that the film was too cerebral and lacking in overt “horror” scenes that has become expected from the franchise. Schrader and his screenwriters had aimed for a psychological film and delivered what he described as “footage without any of the bloody violence”.
The studio consequently replaced Schrader with Hollywood action director Renny Harlin, best known for his directorial work on: “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4 The Dream Master”, “Die Hard 2”, “Cliffhanger”, “The Long KISS Goodnight”, “Deep Blue Sea” and “Driven”.
After directing 2001’s “Driven”, Harlin’s films never lived up to his past works and he found box office failure after failure. That includes his version of “The Exorcist” prequel, which he had taken over from Schrader. Originally the studio planned to conduct a few re-shoots. Ultimately, the movie was altogether re-written by screenwriter Alexi Hawley, re-shot and given $20 million more in budget than what was given to Schrader.
Harlin’s prequel was given the name originally intended for Schrader’s film “Exorcist: The Beginning”. Featuring many of the same plot points, locations and sets as the original Schrader production, but with a tone dramatically shifted to that of a more conventional horror film. Several new characters were added and others were deleted, while star Stellan Skarsgård who plays Father Merrin, were retained for Renny Harlin’s production, as was cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
The character of Father Francis, originally played by Gabriel Mann, had to be recast because Mann had a scheduling conflict. Izabella Scorupco replaces Clara Bellar in a retooled version of the doctor in the village. Though both films center around an exorcism performed by Father Merrin in Africa in 1948, little effort is made to be consistent with references in “Exorcist II: The Heretic”, where Merrin is shown in flashbacks exorcising a teenage boy named Kokomu. In both Beginning and Dominion, the location and setting are different and the boy is not named Kokomu.
After poor audience and critical response to Harlin’s version, grossing a disappointing $76 million. Morgan Creek gave $35,000 (to finish the film) on top of the $30,00 already given to Paul Schrader in his earlier cut. The studio first hired an editor, Tim Silano, to assemble Schrader’s version, but Silano insisted that Schrader be brought back to oversee the editing of his own material. Because Schrader was forced to shelve the movie, the score was left incomplete. Composer Angelo Badalamenti finished (with no pay) some of the music, but the rest was completed by heavy metal band Dog Fashion Disco, who were introduced to Schrader by his son.
Schrader was given a very short amount of time for Schrader to finish his version. Warner Bros. released Schrader’s version theatrically in a limited release, under the title “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist”. It earned even less money than Harlin’s film, grossing only $251 thousand dollars and received slightly better critical notices than Harlin’s version. While William Peter Blatty, the author and screenwriter of “The Exorcist” and director of “Exorcist III” had described “Dominion” as “a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work”.
“Dominion”, like “Exorcist: The Beginning”, is shot in Univisium (2:1) aspect ratio (developed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, although the video release was presented in 1.78:1.
On October 10, 2006, the film was released with the theatrical version of “The Exorcist”, “The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen”, “Exorcist II: The Heretic”, “The Exorcist III” and “Exorcist: The Beginning” in a box set titled “The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology”. On September 23, 2014, the film was released in a Blu-ray version of “The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology”. The movie featured an audio commentary with Paul Schrader and deleted scenes. Unlike the DVD release, the film is only available in the box set. There had been no plans to release the film as a standalone release.
Harlin’s prequel has it flaws, but it also has it’s moments that I liked. Between Harlin and Schrader’s prequels, the win has to go to Schrader’s version. Despite it’s dodgy and laughable CGI (in a sequence that was supposed to feature live Hyenas, but they were uncooperative that they had to be replaced by CGI). “Dominion” is intelligent and subversive, with a quietly mesmerizing performance from Stellan Skarsgård.
Taking inspiration from the original “Exorcist”, Schrader cast actor Skarsgård as Father Merrin because he felt Skarsgård was the best Swedish actor of his generation, just as he thought Max von Sydow (the original actor who played Merrin in “The Exorcist”) was the best Swedish actor of his generation. But before he settled on Skarsgård, Liam Neeson was originally slated to play Father Merrin, but he dropped out because of scheduling conflicts with Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”.
Schrader’s film is the first to synthesize the elements of all of the “Exorcist” films, whether it’s intentionally or otherwise. Schrader presents us with an “Exorcist” film that owes as much to William Friedkin as it does to John Boorman and William Peter Blatty. At the same time, it being a Paul Schrader film is absolutely felt and anyone who knows his work can tell in an instant. Schrader drenches the film in the spiritual and moral angst that’s watermarked his entire career.
Schrader achieves his own identity while still being directly linked to the original trilogy. No other film in the series has a genuine marriage to each of its previous films, the way that Schrader’s does. Call it a failure if you want, but it’s an outstanding failure.
The studio has given us a special privilege that any studio has offered. A chance to compare, two very tonally different versions of the same story, each driven by a different marketing need, directed by a pair of differently envisioned directors. Schrader would much rather tell a story about the evil of men than the evil of Satan. Though the demon, Pazuzu or whoever, certainly exists, and certainly feeds off the darkness growing around it, there is always a certain sense that the demon is rather a metaphor for the evil than the ultimate cause of it. Schrader is interested in Merrin, his path and what drives his arc. “Dominion” is undoubtedly his arc and none other that, is the film concerned with.
“Dominion” really isn’t a horror movie at all, but a study on the difficulty and necessity of keeping faith, with some horrific elements thrown in, with a couple of dream sequences here, some nicely creepy set design there. The final exorcism in the climax itself is as swift and painless as any such sequence ever has been in a movie.
It further suggests that the conflict is never between Merrin and the young teenager Pazuzu who becomes the demon, but it’s a battle between Merrin himself. By the end, Merrin is forced to confront his own demons and regain his spiritual side if he is to prevent unimaginable horrors from taking place. The film Schrader has made is a lot more compelling than just another “demon feature”.
“Dominion” is a genuinely strong and powerful film and one that is completely undeserving of its mistreatment. It takes a more cerebral approach which gradually builds in power as it progresses and it dares to treat the subject matter seriously. no matter how small and half-hearted it may be, serves as a confirmation that he is one of the most intriguing and ambitious filmmakers working today.
Schrader, whose work as a director and as a screenwriter, especially in his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, has consistently dealt with the subjects of guilt, suffering and spirituality over the years, actually has something to say about them and actually takes the time to do so. Schrader have made Father Merrin into a character whose crisis of faith is believable and palpable to such a degree that it may inspire viewers to examine their own notions of spirituality and faith. Schrader is a man seemingly incapable of creating an uninteresting shot and his work here is stunning.
Early on in the film, a young priest Father Merrin is mentoring, looks at the uncovered church that they are digging up and asks: “Why would they build something only to bury it?”. Those lucky enough to catch this film will find themselves asking that same question themselves.