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|Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist
by Peter Sobczynski
About three years ago, I found myself sitting in a comfortable hotel conference room in Chicago talking with the acclaimed writer-director Paul Schrader, who, it was just announced, was about to jet off to Morocco to begin filming, of all things, a prequel to the horror classic “The Exorcist.” Since his directorial career, which has included such works as “American Gigolo,” “Mishima” and “Affliction,” has never for the most part trafficked in the kind of quick shocks and elaborate special effects that the previous entries tended to indulge in, it seemed like a weird fit and I asked him why he chose to do it. He replied with some talk about figuring out a way to do the film without resorting to such old tricks as rotating heads and projectile vomiting. At that, I grabbed him by the lapels and said, “Don’t do it! Don’t you see what will happen? You’ll make your movie and it will be a “Paul Schrader” movie instead of an “Exorcist” movie and the studio weasels will hate you for trying to turn a perfectly exploitable property into something artistic. Who knows what they will do–hell, they might fire you, shelve the film and hire the guy who did “Mindhunters” to give them their blood and puke!” The interview ended right about then and we went our separate ways–he to Morocco and me to try to load up my bag with more hotel stationary and ashtrays.Okay, I may have elaborated and embellished certain elements in the above account but the end result was the same. Schrader went off and filmed a story that was said by those who saw it to be a dark and moody film that dealt seriously with guilt, spirituality and a crisis of faith–in other words, he went out and made a quintessential Paul Schrader film. For the folks at Morgan Creek, the financiers of the film, the film was terrifying for all the wrong reasons–it lacked the blood, puke and cheap shocks that had come to define contemporary horror films. (Presumably, you might have thought that they would have noticed this approach when they read the script before committing the money–unless, of course, they just blindly signed off on anything with the marketable “Exorcist” name in the title without actually reading the script.) The differences between Schrader and the producers soon became the talk of the industry and, in an almost inevitable move, Schrader was fired from the film.
"One of the best American horror films in years"
What happened next, on the other hand, was anything but inevitable. Such skirmishes in Hollywood are not uncommon and there have been any number of films produced that have simply been written off and put on a shelf, never to be seen again. With a title as high-profile as this one, such an option might not have been viable but it could have easily been dumped straight to video or cable and few would have noticed. Instead, Morgan Creek went out and hired Renny Harlin, the hack behind such action-heavy potboilers as “Die Hard 2,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and “Deep Blue Sea,” to shoot a bunch of newly written scenes that would add in the shocks that Schrader had eschewed. The planned overhaul grew more and more elaborate until the producers decided to reshoot the entire film with a new screenplay and a mostly different cast in order to get the film that they presumably wanted in the first place.
When the resulting film, entitled “Exorcist: The Beginning” was finally released last summer, many wondered why they even bothered. The movie was terrible–a cheap-jack compilation of muddled storytelling punctuated by less-than-scary shocks and repulsive bits of gore–and many critics were of the opinion that even if Schrader’s version was as bad as Morgan Creek seemed to indicate, it had to have been at least more intriguing and interesting in its badness than Harlin’s work. As for the public, who probably knew little of the controversy surrounding the production, came in sufficient droves on the opening weekend to make it the top film in the country but once the poor word-of-mouth set in, it quickly faded from view and, when everything was added up, the producers probably broke even on their costs for the second version–the same result that they probably would have gotten from Schrader’s version if they had marketed it in the same way.
At the time of the release of Harlin’s film, there were rumors that Schrader’s vision would turn up at some point down the line–most likely as part of a DVD two-pack featuring both films. However, Schrader, who was allowed to finish his cut with a skeleton crew, screened his at a couple of European film festivals and the response was strong enough to inspire distributor Warner Brothers to announce that, in a move without precedent in film history, they would give the original vision a wide theatrical release. Film buffs rejoiced at first, until the details slowly began to leak out. First, it was given the lugubrious title of “Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist,” a title that almost sounds as if it were designed to ward off potential audiences. Then, the “wide” release was scaled down to about a hundred theaters or so and it was given the less-than-enviable release date of May 20, where it would be going head-to-head against a little thing called “Revenge of the Sith.” Finally, even though some journalists had already seen the film via DVD screeners, planned advanced screenings were suddenly cancelled and the film, which would need rave reviews in order to have a chance of earning an audience, would be going out without any reviews at all–a move that frequent moviegoers have grown to recognize as the sure sign that a film is a complete dog. (Keep in mind, this is from the same studio that deemed the hideous “House of Wax” worthy of advance reviews and screenings.) This may sound insane to you and I but from the point-of-view of Warner Brothers and Morgan Creek, it almost makes sense–if it truly was a dog, then they didn’t waste too much time trying to flog a losing cause and if it turned out to be a good film after all, they made sure that few people would actually see it and report that their taste and judgement weren’t as sound as they assumed. (And yes, as startling as it may sound, people in Hollywood are perfectly willing to piss away tens of millions of dollars in order to avoid such assumptions.)
The grimly ironic punchline to all of this is that “Dominion” is, off all things, a genuinely strong and powerful film and one completely undeserving of its mistreatment. Instead of the stupid shocks common in most American horror films these days–where the audience reactions are more reflex than anything else–it takes a more cerebral approach which gradually builds in power as it progresses and it actually dares to treat the subject matter seriously instead of using it as fodder for a goofy geek show. The result is perhaps the most powerful and impressive American horror film since the similarly little-seen “May” and I would even be willing to go out on a limb to suggest that it may actually be a better film than the overrated original. For Schrader, whose work over the years has been at times as uneven as it has been ambitious, it is a personal triumph–the most consistent work that he has produced since the startling 1984 biopic “Mishima”–and this release, 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.
Those who caught Harlin’s version may be surprised to realize that the basic setup of the plot is the same in Schrader’s version. The conceit of the film is to show the early days of Father Lankester Merrin (the priest that Max Von Sydow played in the original) and when he first encountered and battled the evil presence that he would go face-to-face with in that chilly Georgetown bedroom. Set in 1947, the film opens with Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, who played the role in both versions), who has been suffering a crisis of faith after being forced to take part in a wartime atrocity while serving as a priest in Holland, working at an archaeological dig in the British colonies of East Africa. A strange discovery has just been made–a Byzantine church that appears to be perfectly preserved despite having been buried underground for centuries. As British soldiers arrive to “protect” the site from the locals and an idealistic priest, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), comes to represent the Church, Merrin enters and discovers that something isn’t right. As he probes further, he uncovers what appears to have been a temple dedicated to pagan rituals. By entering, Merrin has unwittingly let the evil that had been contained inside free and it sets about wreaking havoc–it inspires the already tense relations between the villagers and the British soldiers to escalate into violence and it eventually possesses the body of someone. By the end of the film, Merrin is forced to confront his own demons and regain his spiritual side if he is to prevent unimaginable horrors from taking place.
And yet, the devil, as they say, is in the details and it is the details that reveal the wide gulf between the two films. Essentially, both films are about crises of faith and battles between good and evil–the difference is that Harlin uses those ideas to kill time between the elaborate special effects while Schrader, a man whose work as a director and as a screenwriter, especially in his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Bringing Out the Dead”), 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. In his last genre film, the glorious “Cat People” (coincidentally, his last major-studio film until “Dominion”), Schrader realized that he was dealing with potentially preposterous material and any attempt to treat it in a serious and rational manner was doomed and instead chose a delirious, frankly mythic approach. Here, Schrader tries the opposite: instead of making Merrin into a guy who is simply biding his time before slipping on the robes for the final act, he and screenwriters Caleb Carr and William Wisher have actually made him 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–more successfully, in my opinion, than something like “The Passion of the Christ,” a film that knew all the words of its own story of faith but little of the music.
To list all of the ways in which Schrader’s original vision was coarsened by Harlin and Morgan Creek would take far too long. Instead, I will mention three specific things where they changes are so significant that they can pretty much explain the difference between the two films all by themselves.
1. Merrin’s Past: As I mentioned, Merrin’s spiritual descent was the result of a horror that he endured in Holland during the war. One of the Nazi occupiers of a small village is murdered and the head Nazi, assuming that the culprit confessed to Merrin, demands his identity. When Merrin says he doesn’t know the killer, the Nazi then announces that since Merrin won’t give him a name, he will kill ten of the townspeople. The cruel, inevitable twist is that the Nazi insists that Merrin tell him which ten are to be killed–otherwise, he will massacre everyone. Believing that a small evil–naming the ten–is better than a larger evil–the death of everyone–Merrin selects ten people and is so haunted by his actions that he contemplates leaving the Church for good. As the story progresses, Merrin is horrified to find himself surrounded by reminders of his shame–the conflict between the natives and the British outsiders seems to be headed to a similar outcome and a local Polish doctor (Clara Bellar) offhandedly reveals that she worked in the processing center of a concentration camp in order to save herself during the war (and whose guilt over having done so may have led her, as it did Merrin, to the middle of nowhere in an effort to begin anew).
In Schrader’s version, the entire incident serves as the prologue that opens the film. By doing so, it allows the horror of the event to hit us right from the start and serve as a reminder of Merrin’s spiritual conflict and that concepts of good and evil are not as absolute as they might seem–although Merrin’s choice to name people may have been “good” in the short run–it saved more lives that day–to have actually made such a choice instead of refusing, no matter how many would die as a result, was pretty close to evil in the long run. Not only are these subtleties lost in the recut, Harlin inexplicably decided to use the sequence as one of those gradually evolving flashback that occur throughout the film in which we get a little more information each time–a move that takes away from the forward momentum of the story and, when the horrible punchline is revealed, it only has a fraction of the impact. To top things off, Harlin, in an effort to make sure that we know that the Nazis are really evil, has them shoot a child in the head as their first victim while Schrader uses a middle-aged man.
2. The Doctor: As I mentioned, one of the other characters is a doctor who past history has some parallels with Merrin’s. In Schrader’s film, she is portrayed by Clara Bellar, a European actress who has worked with the likes of Eric Rohmer and is fairly convincing as a woman dealing with the shameful memories of the lengths that she went to in order to save her skin during the war. In Harlin’s version, the character is now played by sexbomb Izabella Scorupco, a former Bond Girl whose strikes an improbably glamorous figure in the middle of the desert and whose concerns about saving her skin seem to extend only to the late-night showers that she indulges in for no other apparent reason than to give the audience an eyeful.
3. The Possessed: In Harlin’s version, the demon assumes the body of an adorable young village child who gradually becomes more and more monstrous as time progresses in a manner just like Linda Blair in the original film–at least until the action-packed climax, where it assumes the body of another just in time for the pyrotechnics. In Schrader’s version, the possessed person is another local youth, this time the maimed and deformed Cheche (Billy Crawford), who has been ostracized by the other townspeople for being “cursed.” As his possession grows, he mysteriously grows healthier by leaps and bounds–by the finale, he has transformed into a gorgeously androgynous creature who is simply being modest when he chillingly utters “I am perfect.” Ironically, this transformation is misinterpreted by the idealistic Father Francis as the one sign of God’s presence in an otherwise forsaken area–when he learns the truth, it sends him into a spiritual doubt as severe as Merrin’s.
There were two strong elements in Harlin’s version and both are just as impressive in Schrader’s approach. The first is the strong, stirring performance by Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Father Merrin. While he was excellent in Harlin’s film–allowing us to genuinely see and feel the torment of the character without lapsing into histrionics–his work here seems even better, perhaps because it fits in more comfortably with the more serious and thoughtful proceedings supplied by Schrader. The other standout element is the gorgeous photography from the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a man whose filmography includes the likes of “Apocalypse Now,” “Reds,” “One from the Heart” and “The Last Emperor.” He is a man seemingly incapable of creating an uninteresting shot and his work here is stunning–the climactic exorcism setpiece (far different from Harlin’s) is among the most ravishing things that he has ever put on filmAside from a few bits of unfortunate CGI effects involving animals (another similarity with Harlin’s film, though Schrader presumably didn’t have the funds to touch up the effects), “Dominion” is a smart and elegant film that understands that slowly getting under the skin of viewers with a mounting sense of dread is far more effective than simply grossing them out with gore and stuff jumping in from out of the frame. Those looking for nothing more than two hours of instantly forgettable shocks and jolts will probably come away from this film angry and disappointed–all I can say to them is that if that is all they want, there are probably still seats available for the next showing of “House of Wax.” If, on the other hand, they are looking for something that is smart and thoughtful as it is creepy–a film that forces people to think instead of trying to make them lose their lunch–“Dominion” should affect them in a way that few American horror films have even dared to try. Too bad that most of them will never get a chance to see it on the big screen as it was intended to be shown. Early on in the film, a character looks at the uncovered church and asks, “Why would they build something only to bury it?” Those lucky enough to catch this film may find themselves asking that same question themselves.
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originally posted: 05/20/05 23:56:05
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.