However, as intrigued and interested as I was in Exorcist: The Beginning, I was also disappointed and I found the whole thing to be mediocre. Not bad, exactly, those moments of quality are still there, but not too terribly good or consistent... sort of like if you took a fine steak with the best spices and sauces, and the finest of dinner rolls all laid out in front of you... and your chef, Renny Harlin, makes a meatloaf out of it. In short, I couldn't help but think that it could have been a lot better in another version.
This is that version.
By now, most of you know the fiasco-rich story behind the two prequels to The Exorcist. The story of director Paul Schrader's psychological interpretation of William Wisher and Caleb Carr's screenplay being rejected as unmarketable by Morgan Creek Productions has become a matter of Hollywood lore in its short existence. The fact that the film was refused, recast, re-titled, rewritten and re-helmed with new director Renny Harlin, with new and presumably marketable gore features has become a matter of unbelievable weirdness. The fact that the new and more commercially viable film... flopped at the box office anyway... well, that makes the whole thing worthy of a Paul Schrader film in and of itself.
To give Morgan Creek a little credit, they did eventually release Schrader's original film into theatres less than a full year after Exorcist: The Beginning's less than astronomical bow. To Indian give that credit, it should be noted that Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was debuted in remarkably limited release on the same day that Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith was. Folks, I live in Orange County, California, one of the most movie packed regions in all the world, and it wasn't showing within an hour of my happy Catholic ass. Way to bury your chances there, Morgy!
As I've said a million times before, "it's too bad too!" Why? While Dominion isn't a perfect, or even truly "great" film, it gives the old College Try just like the time my buddy Justin tried to go to College. What's more, the elements that it does share with Exorcist: The Beginning, Dominion handles better, with more atmosphere, believability and yes, even scares. Does that mean that they had it right the first time? Yes, folks, like the time I took my Audi in for a fender bender and they blew out my stereo forever... I can honestly say, it was better before.
Stellan Skarsgård again brings us Father Lankester Merrin, the title character of the original 1973 hit (he stayed for Harlin's version reluctantly because Harlin was a friend of his). On a cold day in Naziville, Merrin lost much more than his congregation to the German Army, he lost his faith. Now, dressed in full Indiana Jones regalia, Merrin is an Archeologist (which fits into the series, of course), called to British occupied Africa for research that only he can do.
The Vatican sends along Father Francis (this time played by Gabriel Mann) to ooh and aah over the Lanky one's shoulder to see what he can see. The problem is that the natives of the area already have a pretty damned good idea what they're going to see, and sign after sign point to what the audience already knows from the title card... there's an evil spirit afoot and the door is ajar for the Crucifix to be held aloft. As Merrin and his friends slowly uncover that something truly evil is hanging out like Fonzie at Al's place, a much slower and cut free film unfolds and really brings the audience in to the mood and into the horror before it's too late to get back out.
The villagers don't trust the Christians, or the British! The British don't trust the Priests or the natives! The Priests and the Doctor don't know who the hell to trust, and our familiar Captain Howdy is having his wicked way twisting all of them against each other as he has his wicked way with every form of life all around his winged butt.
Naturally, if Merrin didn't become a Priest and an Exorcist again, then we wouldn't have a 1973 flick to enjoy (either that or there was one hell of a bout of mistaken identity). But what I can say here is that Merrin's embrace of the Cloth is much more believable, much less contrived and much more gradual than what Harlin's version would have us buy in to.
What is surprising about Schrader's original vision is its pacing and successful use of light and shadow. Instead of opting for a purely dark nightmare, much of the horror takes place during the well lit daytime, allowing for more surprises and a true inversion of mood. Often the use of light adds a beauty to some of the well decorated sets, which is set in stark contrast to The Beginning's omnipresent darkness, hiding everything. The fact that The Beginning cost ten million more to make than Dominion makes one wonder why the hell they had to hide anything.
It's interesting to see some of the same parts distributed to different actors, some of the same events taking place for different reasons, and indeed some of the same scenes reused in completely different ways. However, make no mistake, for all their similarities, Dominion and The Beginning are not the same movie, and merely assimilate some of the same events into very different plots. For sure, the existence of both films is one of the strangest milestones in Hollywood History (which says a freak of a lot), and that just might be what ultimately gains both films their money back. Like the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, these two will be rented and bought by film students and completists alike to be compared and contrasted until the cows come home and have Jackal for din-din. This means both have their place, different or not.
Finally, it should be noted that neither film is perfect. Dominion falls victim to the some of the same pitfalls that its sister film does. For one, the computer graphics here are about as convincing as a three-legged buffalo nickel with file scratch marks over the fourth leg. There is also an occasional moment of illogic, and the sense that Schrader himself was feeling the pressure that those Morgan Creek and Warner Brothers Suits were turning on him.
So, no, it might not be perfect, but it is better than the other film managed to be and seems to fit much better into the overall Exorcist mythology... and a hell of a lot better than Exorcist II: The Heretic does. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is good and worthy of Four Stars out of Five. Sometimes, what it takes to make a good film is letting the camera run, the actors act and the director direct without overproducing the production. Here we see the film that could have been. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist manages to be scary without cashing in on previously accepted imagery, without startles instead of frights and without an anatomy lesson replacing true atmosphere and chills. So until the catacombs below send forth Pazuzu to sting the living into submission, I'll see you in the next reel... and I'll see you in Church. I'm hedging my Bets!
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