Review: Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist
By Erik Kristopher Myers
[Review originally published on BloodyNews.com in 2005]
Few would argue the significance of Exorcist: The Beginning on cinematic history. This is the first time a studio has financed a film and then fired the director – and then hired a new screenwriter and a new director to remake the movie, retaining the same basic plot, sets, cinematographer and leading actor. Essentially, you end up with two versions of the same thing, and for students of film, it provides a unique look at how two completely different film makers approach the same material.
In this case, the film makers in question couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, you have Paul Schrader (the writer of what are arguably Scorsese’s best works), and on the other, you have Renny Harlin, who is best known for making movies that nobody wants to watch. In an unprecedented move, Morgan Creek pulled the plug on Schrader’s Exorcist: The Beginning after viewing a cut they deemed ponderous and badly photographed, bringing on Harlin to craft a new version that would be more accessible to the skateboard crowd. Schrader’s film was denounced by the studio, and most viciously by writer Caleb Carr, who attacked not only the filmic representation of his work, but also Schrader himself.
I’ve already spoken my peace on Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning (feel the hate here), so it’s a dead horse I no longer have any interest in beating. If I mention again, it’s only as a point of inevitable comparison. Instead, I’m going to discuss the newly re-titled Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Original Prequel, a film that everyone has been dying to see but no one has.
Ladies and gentlemen: I’ve seen it.
This is the first review of the film. It’s never been screened, remaining a mystery that grows with the passing of time. As a result, I feel a certain amount of pressure in writing this. While it’s certainly exciting to know that your impressions will set the tone for the buzz that will follow, it’s also an incredibly intimidating feeling. Schrader’s film has been considered a Holy Grail to Exorcist fans (to say nothing of those who follow Hollywood Car Accidents like this one), and it’s a movie that most people have feared they might never have the chance to see. I’m one of the first outside Morgan Creek to do so, and so I’m well aware of the weight my words will carry.
So if my words are indeed destined to carry weight, let me start right off with a statement that will hopefully be remembered. Exorcist: The Original Prequel is a remarkable film, and the fact that Paul Schrader was cheated out of the opportunity to release it is a tragic thing. It’s a haunting work, filled with richness and texture, going far beyond what is expected of a mere continuation of an established classic.
Some readers may remember my scathing review of the unpublished novelization, in which I complained about the story’s lack of substance. I jumped the gun, forgetting that a film and a supermarket tie-in are two completely different things. The narrative flow changes based upon the medium, and sometimes what works on the page doesn’t always work onscreen, or vice versa. Reading the book, I missed all the things that Schrader injected into the story: the sense of despair, of lost Faith. These are elements that could have easily been missed by another director, rendering instead a film that’s as flat as Piziks’ novelization was.
The curious thing about the Exorcist franchise is that you have three films following the same narrative thread, but none of the chapters feel as though they belong to a greater whole. Each one plays too differently from the previous installment, destroying any sense of genuine continuity beyond names or locations. Schrader’s film is the first to synthesize the elements of each one, whether intentionally or otherwise, and presents us with an Exorcist that owes as much to Friedkin as it does to Boorman and Blatty. At the same time, it also manages to achieve its own identity while still being directly linked to The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic, and The Exorcist III. No other film in the series has a genuine marriage to each of its partners the way that Schrader’s does.
At the same time, we’re simultaneous taken in a new direction, one that fans of The Exorcist are either going to love or hate. To some degree I can almost – almost – understand why Morgan Creek balked at the idea of releasing a film so different from the popular conventions of the genre. There are some decisions made that are going to baffle some fans, but only those who seem to think that The Exorcist begins and ends with pea soup and head-spinning are going to be disappointed. To those people, I gladly give the Harlin version, which is everything a derivative Exorcist sequel ought to be. For the rest of you, I promise that Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Original Prequel is the film you’ve been waiting for.
By now you’re probably tired of my yakking and want me to hurry up and get to the particulars, right? If I’ve been slow in coming to them, it’s because this is a review many of you faithful fans been waiting a very long time for, and it’s best to savor it now that it’s here. However, let me warn you first: if you’re looking for heavy spoilers, you might as well stop reading now. While I’m happy to talk about some specifics, I’m not here to give you a play-by-play of the film. The last thing I want to do is take away from the experience of seeing it for the first time. I will, however, drop you a few bones here and there, so pay attention.
By now, most of you have seen the opening sequence of the film, the Sophie’s Choice-style predicament in which Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is forced to condemn ten innocent Dutch villagers to Nazi gunfire. It’s a powerful scene, one that carries a hundred times more weight than the abbreviated version from Harlin’s film. In Schrader’s hands, much of the scene’s strength lies in the slow build-up of tension, a style that dominates the rest of the picture. The sequence in question was of little consequence in Harlin’s film, skipping straight ahead to the gore rather than focusing on the hopelessness of the situation and the realization of what Merrin will be forced to do. The difference between these two versions of the same plot point are indicative of how very different the films are from one another, as well as the fact that Morgan Creek were never looking for anything more than an exploitation piece. Their claims to the contrary seem groundless at this point.
From there, we skip ahead ten years to find Merrin a defrocked priest, hiding in the deserts of Kenya to escape his guilt. He’s overseeing the excavation of a Church that was seemingly buried upon completion, and upon opening it, unleashes an ancient evil that will force him to confront not only The Devil, but Merrin’s absent God, as well.
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Sure – on the surface. A brief synopsis might lead you to believe this is the exact same thing you saw in theaters last summer, but I assure you that you’d be wrong in that assumption. We’re looking at the difference between night and day, here.
A major example is the character of Merrin, who became a swashbuckling hero in Harlin’s film rather than the tormented man we see in Schrader’s version. The performances couldn’t be more different. Here, Merrin is presented as a man tormented by inner demons, who has fled to Africa to unearth the past lives of others because he can’t deal to dig up his own. He has been betrayed by his God, and lives in a state of perpetual liminality that he simultaneously hates and fears to be free of. This isn’t Indiana Jones with a crucifix, as he would later become during the remake. Stellan Skarsgard seems more comfortable with this incarnation of Merrin, and does more with his eyes than with all the lines of dialogue in Harlin’s film put together.
In addition, the supporting characters bear little to no resemblance to their counterparts from the version you’ve already seen. Their motivations and arcs are entirely different. Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) acts as Merrin’s spiritual conscience rather than a Ghostbuster in training. While I knew Mann from lightweight movies like Josie and the Pussycats, I was unaware of his strengths as a dramatic actor. The scene in which a classroom full of African children are murdered by local tribesmen for accepting the White Man’s religion is among the finest in the film, and Mann’s resulting anguish is above praise. Equally different from her Harlin incarnation is the Polish doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar), who serves as a mirror image of Merrin: a person haunted by the past, who would do anything for a chance to go back and change things. Don’t expect any twist endings or out-of-the-blue possessions as far as this character is concerned.
While the supporting cast is worthy of discussion, the character I really want to talk about is Cheche. Played by pop star Billy Crawford, Cheche is a deformed boy who lives on the outskirts of Derati, starved, beaten and sick from disease. He’s hideous to all who look upon him. With his twisted face and gnarled arms and legs, he’s little more than a walking bundle of sticks that hides among the rocks.
At length, Cheche is possessed by the evil spirit dwelling within the church, and in a complete reversal of Exorcist cliches, is healed of his physical abnormalities. The creature that he evolves into couldn’t be more different from the foul-mouthed Linda Blair of The Exorcist: he becomes an androgynous god, emanating light rather than reeking of bile. “I am perfection,” he declares at one point, a glowing creature of impossible beauty that houses cruelty within its magnificent exterior.
If Schrader’s film is about the ugliness of the inner self, then Cheche, originally a hideous creature, is the most beautiful character in the entire film. Crawford plays the part of the crippled outcast with a sensitivity I wasn’t expecting, and I was moved nearly to tears several times throughout the movie. He’s certainly assisted by the clever combination of CG and prosthetics, through which he’s given a gimp arm and bad leg that are so utterly convincing that you find yourself looking for the seams and getting frustrated when you can’t find them. Both the make-up and the performance are Oscar-worthy, which is no small compliment coming from a certified curmudgeon such as myself.
There’s an unintentional echo of Gollum to the character, a pitiable quality that is genuinely affecting rather than manipulative. This is felt most noticeably during a pivotal scene late in the film where we realize that by delivering Cheche from the evil that has invaded him, Merrin must condemn the boy to a broken body for the rest of his life. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and this sort of drama is what elevates the film beyond the tired stereotypes of the genre.
Crawford also plays the opposite end of the spectrum as the embodiment of Lucifer, a being of sexual energy who exists only to tempt mortals with the things they most desire but can never have. He levitates. He glides. He crouches on stone parapets like a gargoyle. These sequences during the third act are what may draw the greatest criticism, if for no other reason than the fact that they’re so much different from anything the franchise has offered thus far. All the same, there are several moments during the exorcism that will definitely make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Look out for an absolutely brilliant Captain Howdy subliminal, one that had me diving for the REWIND button.
There’s so much that I want to talk about, so much about the film that I want to share. I want to tell you about Cheche’s surgery (a scene high on the Uncomfortable Meter), and the sequence where Major Granville (Julian Wadham) brings the events of Merrin’s encounter with the Nazis into the village of Derati. I want to tell you all about the avant-garde dream sequence, and the grinning, demonic statue dug out of the ground at the excavation site. I want to tell you about the soldiers who are murdered in the church. I want to tell you about Merrin’s rediscovery of his Faith. I want to tell you about the brilliant juxtaposition of the exorcism with violence and religious blasphemy. I want to tell you about the stunning cinematography, the surprisingly effective music by Dog Fashion Disco, and so many other things that my head is bursting with them.
I want to tell you about all of it – I just can’t. You need the opportunity to see it and experience it for yourself. This is a film that plays on in your mind long after the credits have stopped rolling, and you deserve the chance to enjoy the afterglow the way that I am right now.
Both Schrader’s and Harlin’s films offer fans of the Exorcist series a unique opportunity: the ability to choose which version they consider œcanon, and to decide which one is the œtrue story of Lankaster Merrin’s first battle with the demon Pazuzu. No other film series can say that.
I choose the Schrader version.
Erik Kristopher Myers is the award-winning writer/director of indie films Roulette (2013) and Butterfly Kisses (2017). His writings have been featured in such publications as The Exorcist: Studies in the Horror Film, and he is currently penning a book on the making of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III.