Warner Bros. // 2005 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 1st, 2005
"Is this how the Almighty treats those who have kept faith with
When Exorcist: The Beginning was released theatrically, I made it a point of interest to set fire to anyone who tried to persuade me to go see it.
Though I adore the novel and respect the original Exorcist as a cinematic horror classic, my true love is for the underappreciated Exorcist III, directed by author William Peter Blatty (The Ninth Configuration), a minimalist, atmospheric, and psychological film unparalleled in the world of horror films.
By now, most of us have heard the story of the production nightmare that was Exorcist: The Beginning; of how Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) had virtually completed his version of the film, showed it to executives at Warner Bros., and was given sage advice regarding the doors of their buildings in relationship to his backside, before unceremoniously tossing both director and film aside in favor of a bloodier, more modern-styled horror film (e.g., naked girls and blood, preferably at the same time). Refusing to release Schrader's $30 million cut of the film, calling it "commercially unmarketable," Warner Bros. instead opted to dump another $50 million into a new director, Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, Cliffhanger), and reshoot 90 percent of the film, the final product barely grossing $40 million at the box office, bringing the total damage to a loss of $40 million dollars for the total project, give or take. In retrospect, probably a bad idea.
But then, rumors began circling of the Paul Schrader alternate cut, the version that was shelved by Warner Bros. for lack of violence and gore, and how it was to be released on DVD, possibly to recoup the losses from the original snafu, and partly because enough people expressed interest. Personally, I found myself intrigued by the idea of Schrader's vision. Considering how egregiously and financially disastrous Harlin's version turned out to be, what exactly were the studio heads trying to suppress? My guess was, a good movie.
Early reports cited Schrader's version as dull, laconic, and full of rambling philosophical musings on the nature of evil, often comparing it unfavorably to the criminally underrated Exorcist III, a film that I will get into a knife fight defending. The idea of a new Exorcist sequel respecting the same tenets of introspective and spiritual horror as my beloved Exorcist III, rather than succumbing to the shlockfest trend of modern-day horror film sequels and remakes, made me salivate with anticipation.
So now, after an embarrassingly small theatrical run, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is on DVD. Did Warner Bros. make the right decision re-shooting Schrader's vision of The Exorcist?
Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård, Good Will Hunting), a Dutch priest turned archeologist, is summoned to a mysterious dig site in British East Africa in the 1940s. His status in the Church is in question after events from World War II painted the man in a particularly unflattering light, but the Church nevertheless request his presence, feeling his unique talents are indispensable. Merrin is guilt-ridden, having witnessed firsthand the ruthlessness of the German army invading Europe and, in a moment of moral weakness, having made some arguably poor decisions, to say the least. The Church is understandably concerned, and sends a young priest, Father Francis, to keep tabs on Merrin during the excavation of a fifth-century Byzantine church that seems to have been deliberately buried in Kenya, during a period in history where no Christian churches should ever have been.
As Merrin and his group of local diggers unearth the church buried in the sand, tension between the British soldiers and the natives increase. Mysterious events begin plaguing the dig site, involving everything from mutilated babies to murdered soldiers. A small boy is ostracized from his village, where they claim an evil spirit possesses him. The further the excavation goes, the more events seem to spiral maliciously out of control, growing continuously more sinister. As the evil grows, Father Merrin soon realizes the nature of the danger, but can not bring himself to accept it...
After watching Dominion, I bit the bullet and rented a copy of Exorcist: The Beginning, in order to experience the train wreck from both angles. It was a surreal experience. There is an undeniable fascination in seeing a film presented in one distinct style, then switching discs and seeing the same film with the same actors, reused footage, and the same sets, but with totally different music, performances, dialogue, and plot. Both visions of the film are as different as night and day, but share so much common ground that it becomes fascinating to observe the changes made, or perhaps more accurately, the changes not made.
I find it even more interesting that, while I disliked Exorcist: The Beginning tremendously, I enjoyed certain sequences it presented over Dominion, and vice versa. Dominion is a film that starts off with genuine emotional resonance and promise, and gets steadily worse as the clock runs down. By the time the credits roll, the films as a whole is something of a lost cause, both stale and uninteresting, despite being intellectually fascinating. Say what you will about Exorcist: The Beginning, a film almost entirely devoid of substance and relevance, but at the very least, it has a sense of passion about it, a desperate motivation to be exciting and entertaining, which Dominion entirely lacks.
Though it pains me to admit it, I can see why the studio would balk at Schrader's vision of this film and opt to reshoot. Dominion is a film that I wanted to like much more than I was actually able to bring myself to like, a muddle of metaphor and plot holes, bad CGI effects, and terrible acting that borders on unsalvageable. This is not to say that I preferred Harlin's version. I can merely see it from the other side of the board room. Dominion may indeed be a better film, a more interesting and fascinating film, but it is also more boring and, in its current incarnation, almost entirely unmarketable.
Comparing how the films handle their subject matter is as different as night and day. Exorcist: The Beginning is a bloody action film, and lays out the ground rules within 20 minutes: we have the Devil vs. mankind, and a bloody battle to the death it will be. The Devil is evil, and everyone else is inherently good, and therein lays the conflict. In stark contrast, Dominion is a film of implication, of suggestion and subterfuge, a film that takes far longer to lay out the rules of the game. This time, we have Father Merrin versus his own demons, or perhaps more accurately, man versus man, struggling to overcome the personal evils that dwell within the hearts of each and every man. It is a quiet film, and in comparison, Exorcist: The Beginning seems loud, boisterous, and obnoxious. Rather than throw in clichéd iconography like upside-down crosses, devilish statues, sketches of black shadows, and tarot cards as in Harlin's version, Schrader's Dominion assembles the same basic sequence of events, but leaves the details far less distinct in terms of an epic struggle between the Devil and mankind. It opts for a more personal reflection, a vague indistinct introspective reflection into exactly what evil means within our own hearts.
In Dominion, evil is a tenant of mankind alone, and less to do with religion than you may think. The struggle between Merrin and his demons is exactly that, a personal struggle of religious faith, and the possession is merely a backdrop to articulate the conflict and hatred that dwells in the hearts of men, be they priest or soldier. The dominion of evil lies within mankind itself. As the British soldiers threaten to war against the native African tribe, while Merrin relives flashbacks of World War II, the demonic figure simply smiles, as if orchestrating the entire affair, a creature that seems more a byproduct of the evil of man rather than the root of it. This perspective clashes horrendously with Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning, in which Merrin comes to the place where evil was born, where Lucifer fell to Earth, the problems plaguing the protagonists an issue of simple geography. In Dominion, the evil is inherent in the heart of all mankind, a threat with us all since the beginning of time. A fascinating tenant; but not one that screams "summer blockbuster."
Some of the more striking changes come in the form of character development stripped away in Harin's reconstitution of the film. Gone is the faux-Indiana Jones archeologist Father Merrin, replaced by a much more interesting and tortured character, a shamed priest who has not lost his faith, merely misplaced it under a pile of guilt and shame. There is no nihilism in his disposition, simply a man who desperately needs to understand himself. The character of Father Francis had almost entirely no relevance in Exorcist: The Beginning, merely a tertiary character designed to be Merrin's priest "sidekick." Same with Major Granville, the British soldier commander, who had about a minute and a half of screen time. In Dominion, both characters are of extreme importance and relevance; Father Merrin, as a man who actively has his faith tested during the unfolding cataclysmic events, and Major Granville, who suffers through exactly the same crisis of evil and conscious that Merrin experienced in his past. It is not clear, in fact, that Merrin is even the main character in Dominion; his demons seem no worse than any of the other characters. This, perhaps, is exactly the point.
Considering that Exorcist: The Beginning is mentally and emotionally bankrupt, Dominion presents a much more fascinating experience, both emotionally and intellectually. But does this make it a good film? As a deep rumination on the nature of evil, Dominion leaves much to be desired, largely in part because the film simply feels "unfinished." We can assume the laughably absurd CGI-created hyenas and snakes were tacked on after the film was canned, as they are so bad as to warrant the suppression of the film alone. How $80 million can be spent to make a major motion picture -- twice -- and end up with low-budget made-for-TV movie effects is beyond me. Certain sequences are magnificent in tone, acting, and performance, which then edit awkwardly to stilted sequences, corny dialogue, and bad acting, without rhyme or reason. As predictable and vacuous as Exorcist: The Beginning may be, as a film, it feels far more "complete" than Dominion, which is painful to admit.
Even more upsetting, I failed to find any horror, or dread, or mystery in Dominion. The few tense moments were few and far between, and whatever spiritual ruminations it occasionally waded into, the film waded out equally fast, as if unable (or unwilling) to keep up the introspection. Instead of going for blood, the film tries for a psychological tension, a general creepiness of unease and discord, which works rather erratically. The film has little visual style to speak of, despite the expert cinematography, and has a flat, uninteresting camera style in stark contrast to the high-contrast, claustrophobic shots of Exorcist: The Beginning.
Truth be told, I am not even sure I found Dominion to be an "improvement" over its counterpart. More interesting, meaningful and introspective, to be certain...but less enjoyable as well. The film simply feels too rough, too unpolished to be taken seriously. Had Schrader been able to finish production, I have no doubt a fine film would have emerged, but in its current incarnation, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is murky and mediocre, its brilliant moments weighed down by its own confusion and patchwork assembly.
Sadly, the DVD presentation of Dominion is rather lackluster, especially in comparison to Warner Bros.'s strong treatment of Exorcist: The Beginning. Though the transfer is acceptable at first glance, print damage and white spots are noticeable repeatedly throughout the film, far more than can be reasonably expected. Again, it gives the impression of a good-looking film haphazardly assembled into something not quite as good; as if hastily assembled and rushed to DVD without the time taken to correct tiny defects.
The Lynch-esque dream sequences are made even eerier by Trevor Rabin and Angelo Badalamenti's ever-droning score, and while Dominion plays less jump-out-and-go-boo tricks than its predecessor, but still effects an eerie and creepy audio presentation. Unlike the first film, which contained both a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround and a DTS track, Dominion has only an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but thankfully, it performs quite adeptly, with firm bass response, excellent use of the rear channels, and tiny atmospheric noises that help cultivate the tension.
"I think one of the inherent problems with the script I directed, as a horror film, lay in its very premise," says director Schrader at the opening of his commentary track, and this is a very ominous tone to take straight out of the gate. The commentary track offers up interesting details about the production of Dominion and Schrader's role replacing John Frankenheimer, and ultimately leaving the project; but the track is erratic, with gaps of 10 and 15 minutes at a time where the director says absolutely nothing at all. In addition to the commentary, there are a handful of deleted sequences and a stills gallery. It would have been nice to have seen some sort of featurette explaining the trials and tribulations of making Dominion, but oh, well.
Having seen both Dominion and Exorcist: The Beginning, the upsetting tragedy is that each film, separate in their own way, offers the occasional sequence superior to its counterpart. Harlin's version has some genuine "boo" moments, and a dismal and heavily shadowed cinematography that triumphs over the bleak and uninteresting special effects of Dominion. In turn, Schrader's vision is a film with a purpose, has better acting, and far more intellectual resonance. If one could pick and choose between the two versions, taking the best features and shots from each, one might have created a film worthy of the Exorcist franchise name. The potential is there, wedged between both films. Sadly, as it stands now, neither Dominion nor Exorcist: The Beginning are even worth their weight as stand-alone films.
Roger Ebert makes an exceptional point in his review of Dominion by observing that, while it may not be a great film in the strictest sense, both versions of the film are made far more interesting in the presence of one another. With this, I agree. Schrader's vision of Dominion is arguably a more realized film than its odorous counterpart, but neither are particularly good films; merely different rearrangements of a fundamentally bad film. However, comparing both films to one another, seeing how each director's vision of the same material took then down different paths, it gives a light to the film that does not exist in either singular vision. It is a fascinating example of directorial influence and the power of editing over a final cinematic product, to see how the films stay the same, and yet differ so radically.
Though something of a letdown, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist nevertheless represents a stronger foray into the Exorcist canon than its ill-fated brother, with some genuinely creepy moments to boot. This is a film that plays better each time it is watched, and gets more cohesive and more fascinating with repeated viewings, but I am still not convinced Dominion is a good film. It simply feels too inconsistent to stand on its own. Plus, I wish the DVD presentation were better.
I will take Dominion over Harlin's version any day, but ultimately, both films are simply opposite sides of the same rusty coin, and leave much to be desired.
Just barely not guilty. Now where's the Special Edition of Exorcist III, already?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.00:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Director Paul Schrader
* Additional Scenes
* Stills Gallery
* DVD Verdict Review of Exorcist: The Beginning