This is the first first-time-watch for me in this EXORCIST series viewing. There are so many horror franchises that I’m a completist about, but I never really thought of myself as an EXORCIST guy. But after revisiting I, II and III in quick succession, and knowing I’d be seeing the new one too, I figured… when in Rome (home of the Vatican), right? Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity to seize the entire THE EXORCIST series in one moment…
I actually always meant to see the EXORCIST prequel, but it was intimidating, because there were two of them. Morgan Creek founder James G. Robinson started trying to develop the prequel in the late ‘90s, probly without very lofty ambitions, since the first director attached was Tom McLoughlin (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES). But after McLoughlin didn’t like the script by William Wisher Jr. (TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY) and left the project, they picked up the great John Frankenheimer, who had most recently done REINDEER GAMES and the made-for-cable PATH TO WAR. He brought in novelist Caleb Carr for a page 1 rewrite, and Liam Neeson signed on to star as the younger version of Max von Sydow’s archaeologist/exorcist character, Father Lankester Merrin. But Frankenheimer had to leave due to illness (and died a month later), and his friend Paul Schrader (fresh off of AUTO FOCUS) agreed to take over if he could rework the script. (Only Wisher and Carr received credit, but Carr said it didn’t resemble what he wrote.) Neeson had to drop out to do LOVE ACTUALLY, but miraculously the studio let Schrader hire Stellan Skarsgård (IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE) to star.
I don’t think the early 2000s were a dead zone for horror, but at that time it definitely seemed too good to be true that Schrader, the high-minded auteur with the famously strict religious upbringing, was being given a crack at an EXORCIST movie. And then it turned out it was too good to be true. When Morgan Creek and Fox screened a rough cut they had what Schrader called “buyer’s remorse,” feeling it wasn’t enough of a horror movie. They made him re-edit it, which didn’t help. They hired Sheldon Kahn (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST, SPACE JAM) to do another re-edit, which infuriated Schrader. They looked for another director to shoot new horror scenes to add in, then decided just to dump the whole thing and start over. The script was rewritten, most of the roles were recast, and Renny Harlin (either right before or right after MINDHUNTERS) directed the movie, using only a little bit of Schrader’s footage.
Harlin’s EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING was released in 2004 to little fanfare and even littler praise, so they figured what the hell and released Schrader’s version the following year, to more positive but still mixed reviews. And here I am 18 years later finally catching up, starting with Schrader’s version.
You know what? I really like this movie, released with the awkward title DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST. But I’m sure many people wouldn’t. A few caveats are required. One is that it’s not exactly a finished movie. I realized that the first time the hyenas showed up. It’s been real stuff we’re looking at and all the sudden we got these goofy CG hyenas moving like Fantastic Mr. Fox. So you gotta forgive that. And I’m willing to give Schrader the benefit of the doubt that a few of the horror parts would’ve also been improved if the plug hadn’t been pulled. The parts where the demons come out are not the reason to watch movie.
But, all that being said up front, I found the movie really interesting, exploring messy moral questions without easy answers. It opens with one of, if not the most upsetting scene in any EXORCIST movie, and there’s nothing supernatural about it. In occupied Holland, 1944, a Nazi lieutenant (Antonie Kamerling, “Man in the Bar,” MINDHUNTERS [!]) has rounded up the residents of a small village, demanding to know who killed one of his soldiers. He calls Father Merrin out of the crowd, hoping he’d snitch if anyone had confessed the murder to him. He actually believes Merrin when he says it was no one from this village, but he still wants to make an example out of someone. “Surely there is one among them who beats his wife or his children. A thief, perhaps. Every town has someone it can do without. Point him out.”
When Merrin refuses to do that, the Nazi says okay, that’s fine, he’ll just go ahead and shoot ten people instead of one, then. Merrin’s attempted interventions – talking calmly, invoking God, offering himself – don’t help. The lieutenant escalates to threatening to kill all of the people, and starts shooting some at random until Merrin gives in and desperately, pathetically points out people to execute.
He tried to take the high road, but he was blocked. I imagine most of us agree that this immoral and dishonorable act of judgment, and breach of trust of his congregants, was the lesser of two evils. It seems to have saved many lives. But that’s not gonna help much with the guilt.
So three years later Merrin is working as an archaeologist, his status in the church “undecided” according to the idealistic young missionary Father Francis (Gabriel Mann, CHERRY FALLS) who the Cardinal has sent to keep an eye on him. Merrin has uncovered the dome of a Byzantine era Christian church mysteriously buried in the Turkana district of Kenya, and “the cardinal wants to be sure that the site’s religious aspects are given proper consideration.”
In Turkana we meet some of the important characters: their guide Chuma (Andrew French), western doctor Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar, “FemMecha Nanny,” A.I. – ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE), and hotel owner Emekwi (Eddie Osei), who’s Christian and offers his sons James and Joseph as the first students for Father Francis’ missionary school.
When Merrin digs up enough of the church to determine it was buried immediately after it was built, he says, “Chuma, hire some more men. Have them work double shifts. I want these walls cleared.” Two scenes later a worker (Hamadi Mwapachu) collapses from heat stroke. Merrin is caring about it and helps get him water, then is distracted by a young man watching from the hills. Cheche (singer Billy Crawford) is an outcast with a withered arm and leg, who the locals beat up because they think he’s cursed. He has to sneak around trying to find food and water, which Merrin leaves out for him. I like the seeming contradiction that Merrin is so kind to this outcast while oblivious to the fact that he’s this white Christian dude coming into Kenya working people until they collapse.
The doctor thinks Cheche could be healed if a surgeon was flown in from Nairobi to re-break his leg. Cheche agrees and will end up spending a portion of the movie as a reverse of Regan MacNeil – laying in bed getting miraculously better, rather than mysteriously sicker.
When they get inside the church they figure out it was built on top of a cave where humans were sacrificed to pagan gods. The idea is to keep the evil down, like spraying Febreeze all over it. After they uncover it, weird shit starts happening. Hyenas attack the bulls, get eaten by the bulls, the bulls die. The local tribe tells them to stop digging up the church, blaming this curse on Christianity. A really provocative scene is when the tribe’s leader Sebituana (Ilario Bisi-Pedro, ROTTWEILER)’s wife (Pet Chege) is giving birth, intercut with the surgeon from Nairobi (Burt Caesar, ASSAULT ON WACO) working on Cheche’s leg. The baby comes out, stillborn and somehow covered in maggots, at basically the same time as the doctor breaks the bone. What does it mean? What is the connection? Does healing poor Cheche really cause this death? That seems like the implication, more than a poetic contrast of healing and death.
The series has many characters who are questioning their faith, but I think this version of Merrin has the most acerbic quips about it. When Father Francis says that at times like this prayer is all we have, Merrin says, “It’s like having nothing, isn’t it?” When Francis is aghast at bloodstains in the pagan temple Merrin says, “It’s almost like a scene out of the Inquisition, isn’t it?” Hey – he’s just asking questions.
The two Fathers get along surprisingly well, but have a major disagreement when Francis insists on calling Major Granville (Julian Wadham, WAR HORSE) to send an attachment to guard the site from potential thieves. Merrin is absolutely correct: it’s the soldiers themselves who try to loot, and their very presence almost immediately causes disaster. Two soldiers who have night watch try to steal some jewels and are found extravagantly murdered inside. Granville blames the Turkana, and when Merrin and Francis explain that the positioning of the bodies is “Christian imagery, not pagan” it really sets him off.
“A Christian is responsible? You’re both insane.” He can’t even entertain the possibility. Same goes for the idea that his soldiers were stealing and then killed each other, despite the eyewitness testimony of the warrior Jomo (Israel Aduramo, “Crippled Man” in the first two PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEANs).
I love the scene where the surgeon Dr. Lamu is about to fly back home to Nairobi and he looks around and asks Merrin, “What’s going on here? This whole valley?”
Merrin doesn’t know what to say, tries to convince him to stay a few more days.
“Who’s in charge here?”
“Military. Major Granville.”
“Not you?” Lamu asks, surprised.
“No,” Merrin laughs. “No, not me.”
Dr. Lamu grimaces suspiciously, does a slow 180 scan of the valley around him, puts on his hat, says very grimly, “You take care of yourself, Lankester Merrin,” and shakes his hand. As he’s flying away he looks down at the dome of the church, and maybe this is supposed to show some sort of superstitious fear of it. But I prefer to take the scene as an urban African professional who doesn’t believe in curses or “the old ways” but can see that the situation here is explosive.
What I find most interesting and most Paul Schrader about DOMINION is its probing of the meaning of “good” and “evil.” The opening scene set it up profoundly with Merrin facing a life or death choice with no comfortable answer. Recounting it later he says, “I believed God let us decide between good and evil. I chose good. Evil happened.” In that scene he notices a concentration camp tattoo on Dr. Lesno’s arm. He doesn’t tell her about his experience during the war, of course. He says, “Well, nobody knew back then. Everybody… We heard stories.”
She says, “Nobody wanted to believe. It’s so much easier to believe evil is random, or an ogre, not that it’s a human condition, something everyone is capable of.”
We will, of course, get an ogre later, ‘cause it’s an EXORCIST movie, but only after seeing the truth of Dr. Lesno’s statement. Major Granville’s response to the death of his soldiers very much mirrors that of the Nazi lieutenant in the opening. Some might say it’s unfair to draw parallels between the British Empire in Africa and Germany during WWII. “A Christian is responsible? You’re both insane.” We couldn’t possibly be as bad as the Nazis, so it’s okay that we’ve subjugated another country, another race, another culture. It’s different. I’m sure it is. Yet here we have Granville rounding up the Turkana, pointing guns at them, demanding they give up a killer who’s not present, and then shooting a random innocent in cold blood.
It’s significant that it’s previously well-meaning Granville that does this, and not the guy you’d expect more, the racist Sergeant Major Harris (Ralph Brown, ALIEN 3, THE PHANTOM MENACE, FINAL SCORE, GEMINI MAN). It’s not as simple as the good soldier and the bad soldier. Evil really is “something everyone is capable of.” Now Francis has to wrestle with the knowledge that he was the one who called Granville there, and Merrin is the one to try to convince him it wasn’t his fault.
Tensions and atrocities escalate. New students show up at Francis’ school because they’re afraid if they don’t then Jesus will kill them. After it’s more clear that Cheche is possessed, Sebituana demands he and Francis be handed over to be killed, while “The British, if they leave now, will be spared.” It could be argued that this is a bit of a both-sidesing, in the sense that it echoes the previous “turn over the killer” scenes, but #1 he’s saying it to people holding guns, instead of the other way around, and #2 in the world of the movie this is really a lesser of two evils choice like Merrin made at the beginning. He’s calculated that two people can die instead of many more. (But Merrin’s actions will cut that body count down to one. A little redemption.)
To me this is the most thematically interesting and thought-provoking of the EXORCIST movies. Unfortunately it’s burdened by the weakest horror climax of any of them. You might be tempted to say well, Schrader’s not really a horror guy, but I think his version of CAT PEOPLE is pretty great.
It’s mostly in the second half that they have to start bringing in the demonic possession and the exorcising and what not. Francis hears demonic voices, mistakes them for God until he accidentally burns Cheche with his crucifix. Against Merrin’s advice, he brings Cheche to the church to be baptized. Before the water touches him, Cheche demon-punches Francis and there’s a crazy shot of him flying across the chamber in slow motion. The flames on a torch are burning in regular speed, and because of the unfinished nature of this thing I really don’t know whether it’s intentional or accidental strangeness.
Cheche turns muscular and bald, wears a loin cloth, sits on a pagan (Pazuzu?) throne, floats a little. Obviously Merrin has to regain his belief and become the titular Exorcist, busting out the robes and rosaries like John Wick did his guns and ammo. Schrader doesn’t do terribly with all this, it’s just that the rest of the movie is so much fresher, it feels like a let down to spend the last 15 minutes on more routine stuff, with sometimes goofy optical effects. The saving grace is that in Merrin’s mind he revisits his WWII trauma and see what might’ve happened if he tried some action hero shit. It’s the demon’s way of freeing him from his guilt, but he interprets it his own way. This movie obviously has a Christian point of view that I don’t share, but I respect it because it really seems like Merrin and the movie have put plenty of thought into their belief.
As you would expect, Skarsgård is really good in this. I think he succeeds at the task of adding complexity to a character we really didn’t know much about (except maybe in the book). Merrin here seems very legitimate in his theological and archaeological expertise, but also his cynicism about religion, militarism, colonialism. I also think Mann is really great as Francis – a real virginal dork, who is kind and sincere, has his own flaws, but is genuinely well-meaning, and ultimately has an influence on Merrin.
The only thing it really has to prequelize is that Merrin has encountered this demon (not named as Pazuzu) and will be in an ongoing battle with him. Schrader goes light on references to the first film. The only one I don’t think works is when Merrin dreams of a guy made up to look like that Halloween-makeup looking dude in the “subliminal” shots of the original. That was laughable. But the statue that looks like that guy is pretty cool. The last shot of the movie mimics the famous foggy shot from THE EXORCIST when Merrin arrives at the house. Here he walks away, into a cloud of sand. I like it. It’s not too heavy-handed.
I also watched a documentary called SCHRADER’S EXORCISM, which was directed by Tim Silano, editor of Seagal’s AGAINST THE DARK. When the studio decided to release Schrader’s version on DVD they hired Silano to cut it, and weren’t even going to involve Schrader. Silano realized nobody would want to see it without the director’s blessing, so he went and worked with Schrader. They must’ve hit it off because he later edited THE CANYONS and DYING OF THE LIGHT.
The documentary is pretty crudely made, and most of the footage is from Schrader premiering his version at a film festival in Brussels, but there’s some good information in there. They were given a “minimal” budget and schedule to complete the movie, so they were unable to involve cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE CONFORMIST, APOCALYPSE NOW, DICK TRACY) in the color timing, though Schrader’s friend Caleb Deschanel (KILLER JOE) was able to help. I think he says in the interview that it was given to them in the wrong aspect ratio?
Maybe the most interesting part is that Schrader didn’t have a score. He had to rework what Trevor Rabin made for the Harlin version, but that’s an entirely different movie, there’s no scene-by-scene comparison, so it didn’t cover everything. According to Schrader, he gave Angelo Badalamenti (THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS) a Rolex in exchange for about 20 minutes of original compositions, including the main theme, while the last reel was done by Dog Fashion Disco, a band Schrader’s son liked who owed him a favor for getting them a record deal. He describes them as metal, but they have a cellist and a keyboard player, so they made sense for film scoring. They also went through and remixed the rest of the soundtrack to make it fit together better.
Ironically DOMINION ended up opening against another prequel, REVENGE OF THE SITH. Of course it was only on 110 screens, so it wasn’t much competition. And they’re pretty different movies. Both flawed. Both good.
After being able to in some sense finish his movie, Schrader seems fairly laid back about the whole experience. He sums it up as, “The man who financed it decided he’d made the wrong film.” Morgan Creek wanted more “hardcore horror,” which Schrader diagnosed as antithetical to the premise of the script they’d approved. “As the possession takes hold he gets better, and everyone else becomes more and more insane,” Schrader explains, arguing that since that’s “not a horror mechanism” it justifies approaching it as “not a typical horror film.”
In a discussion after the screening he notes what a gift it is to film schools to be able to compare and contrast two directors’ totally different takes on the same premise, with the same star, same cinematographer, some of the same sets. He calls DOMINION “a genuine asterisk in the history of cinema. Hopefully it’s more, but at least it’s that.”
Yeah, I think it’s both. I like this one. Tomorrow we’ll see how the version from the director of THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE compares.