Paul Schrader, 2005
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford
Before I actually get to reviewing Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, some back story is necessary. (If you just read my review of Exorcist: The Beginning, skip this paragraph.) Studio Morgan Creek inexplicably decided they needed a new Exorcist film in the early ‘00s and they wanted it to be a prequel to the original Exorcist, examining Father Merrin’s initial encounter with the demon Pazuzu. John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was hired to direct, but withdrew because of health issues and passed away. Next up was Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, director of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, American Gigolo), who completed Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist and was then fired by the studio, because they decided the film would tank. It was more of a psychological thriller and they wanted an outright horror film.
They got Renny Harlin to make a similar film, Exorcist: The Beginning, with a re-written script and new shots, but many of the same actors and the same set/location. After this predictably tanked in theaters, the studio threw a small amount of money at Schrader and allowed him to finish Dominion and eventually release it. While the plot is similar to Exorcist: The Beginning, there are some notable differences.
Father Lankester Merrin has abandoned his religious faith and the priesthood after horrible events during WWII. He travels to Africa as an archaeologist and is invited to work on a buried, but partially excavated Byzantine church in an isolated region of Kenya. He is to work with Father Francis, appointed by the Vatican to make sure the ancient church isn’t desecrated, and Major Granville, a British officer in change of the dig. He also meets the local doctor, Rachel, a woman slowly recovering from her experiences in a concentration camp. Merrin learns that the church is surprisingly in great condition, but has numerous, disturbing sacrilegious elements and it seems that it was built over top of a satanic/pagan temple. The local tribe thinks the church is cursed, particularly when people are camp begin dying, and presses Merrin to stop excavating.
He also meets a deformed young outcast, Cheche, who has been banished from the village and is very ill. Rachel agrees to care for him and he begins healing at an alarming, almost miraculous rate. Father Francis thinks Cheche’s changes are less than miraculous and decides to perform an exorcism. Cheche agrees, but insists they must go down into the bowels of the church. Things go horribly wrong and Merrin must take over, but can he regain his faith?
Written by William Wisher (The Terminator) and novelist/historian Caleb Carr, the script is more interesting than Exorcist: The Beginning, but is not much less of a mess. As with Exorcist: The Beginning, Stellan Skarsgård is the strongest part of the film and some of his scenes show the heights that the film could have reached. With that said, the female lead, Clara Bellar (A.I.), is far worse than Izabella Scorupco, who had the role of the female doctor in Exorcist: The Beginning. As with that film, the side characters are largely forgettable, highlighting the numerous script issues. Characters are barely sketched out, no one has any character development, and relationships are tenuous at best.
The early Holocaust sequence and subsequent subtext is probably the best thing about this film (I felt the same way about Exorcist: The Beginning, though there it is relegated to flashbacks), but I wish Schrader did more with it. How can you take supernatural evil seriously after the horrors of WWII? The film does raise this question, but doesn’t explore it fully enough.
I’ve read that The Exorcists’s writer William Peter Blatty enjoyed this film and found it “elegant,” an opinion shared by a few other critics, despite a largely negative popular reception. While I will agree that the film is far more ambitious than Exorcist: The Beginning, it doesn’t quite hit its mark. Schrader’s attempts to show a more philosophical, human evil are compelling, but it doesn’t prevent the film from ending in a big, fiery inferno of exorcism. The pitiful amount of money Schrader was given to finish the film means that the CGI is appallingly bad, so awful it is difficult to watch any of the scenes with effects.
Director Paul Schrader has certainly had an interesting, if bumpy career. He wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, recent Lindsay Lohan rescue-mission The Canyons, etc. It’s a shame the film was not allowed to meet its full potential, though it’s hard to deny that there’s something fascinating about watching two different versions of the same film. I wish both Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist were better movies, but it is surreal to see nearly the same sets and actors tell different versions of the same story.
I can’t recommend Dominion, but it is definitely better than Exorcism: The Beginning. I’m reviewing The Exorcist Complete Anthology collection, which includes both the original version of The Exorcist and the director’s cut, The Exorcist II, The Exorcist III, and the two prequels, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.