At the turn of the century, as we discussed yesterday, Morgan Creek set out to make a prequel to THE EXORCIST, and wound up making two of them instead. We already took a look at Paul Schrader’s DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, the first one made, but initially shelved by the studio. When they test screened it they were so unhappy they decided rather than trying to salvage it with reshoots and recuts they would build a church on top of it and bury the church, by which I mean hire Renny Harlin (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER) to start over.
The script was heavily rewritten by Alexi Hawley (a first timer who has since written for TV shows such as The Following, Castle and The Recruit), but it’s still about Father Merrin uncovering an early Christian church found mysteriously buried in the Turkana district of Kenya. Stellan Skarsgård continued, as he put it in an intro for the premiere of Schrader’s version, “carrying the cross for Merrin for another year.” And Julian Wadham and Ralph Brown will later show up as Major Granville and Sergeant Major. But Father Francis is now played by James D’Arcy (HITCHCOCK, OPPENHEIMER), and Clara Bellar’s Dr. Rachel Lesno has been replaced by Izabella Scorupco (GOLDENEYE) as Dr. Sarah Novak, so even when Skarsgård’s dialogue is the same he had to refilm.
Harlin retained the great Vittorio Storaro (APOCALYPSE NOW) as director of photography, but went with a very different look, with lots of gold tint. I think it looks good, if a little dated to the era.
The opening scene has the scope of a fantasy movie. During the Crusades, a long-haired priest (Matti Ristinen) stumbles through the aftermath of a giant battle, hundreds of dead people laying everywhere with swords and spears and shit sticking out of them, scavengers flying and crawling around looking for snacks. He notices a little sculpture of a Pazuzu head on the ground and tries to pick it up, but the impaled guy who dropped it grabs his hand and tries to warn him. Then the camera does one of those “CAN YOU BELIEVE IT, THIS IS IN 3D!” (even though this wasn’t in 3D) digital pull backs to reveal that for some reason he didn’t notice that there are, I don’t know…maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of people all around him, filling the whole valley, crucified upside down on upside down crosses.
Come to think of it, since the priest actually looks a little like Harlin, maybe this is what it felt like for him to take over the project.
I think this is supposed to tie in to what we learn about the history of the valley much later in the movie – I don’t see how, exactly. But in Cairo, 1949, an antiquities dealer named Semelier (Ben Cross, FIRST KNIGHT, TURBULENCE, UNDISPUTED 2) hires Merrin to join the dig at that church in Turkana to look for that Pazuzu head. He finds Merrin in a Panama hat, downing shots in his favorite bar, trying not to be scammed by some kid trying to sell him a puppet. Harlin really tried to go the “he’s an archaeologist, he’s like Indiana Jones” route, and I gotta admit I kinda like it. They sum up his background in conversation, like a Just How Badass Is He?: “An Oxford-educated archaeologist, an expert in religious icons. You were a priest before the war. So, what happened?” We’ll find out later.
In DOMINION there’s some tension about it being Merrin’s dig, and Father Francis being sent as an interloper. Here they’re both sent at the same time, and Merrin’s really the one who doesn’t belong there, he’s just “a thief and a whore” trying to get a statue for a guy.
We barely see the clinic operating, the school even less. We do see more of Emkwi’s sons James and Joseph (Remy Sweeney), because there’s no Cheche character at all, so Joseph sort of takes his place, getting possessed. And the c.g. hyenas are in it more because there’s a scene where a pack of them maul James and Joseph stands watching emotionlessly and unharmed. When it happens Emkwi comes in with a rifle and tries to shoot them, but then Merrin shows up and grabs the rifle and does the shooting. Don’t you know I’m the hero of this movie? I take care of this stuff.
I don’t want to disparage Scorupco, who does a good job, but when you’ve already seen the Schrader version it seems like some THE PLAYER type bullshit what they did to the character. The original actress was a pretty lady, but they felt they needed to switch to someone who was hot. In Schrader’s version they seem to have feelings for each other by the end but Merrin has decided to rededicate himself to the priesthood, so he timidly kisses her on the cheek before leaving. In Harlin’s he keeps telling her he’s not a priest, as if to say he’s available. He comes over and has a drink with her and lustily checks out her sweaty cleavage.
Less than halfway into the movie they start making out in the clinic next to bedridden Joseph, but are interrupted by demonic business. And at one point she gets to experience that classic scare sequence situation of the power going off during a shower and going to investigate a strange noise in the dark while wearing only a towel. A trope so well worn it was joked about in JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY.
In a making-of featurette on the DVD/blu-ray they unsurprisingly don’t address the history of the project, or that the character was recast. But Harlin says he “searched long and hard” for an actress to play the role and “What I think Izabella brings is the fact that she’s very believable as a professional woman, a strong woman who can survive in these very harsh conditions, and do her job, and at the same time of course, because it’s a movie, she is also really, really attractive and nice to look at, so, you know, why go to movies to look at normal people?”
D’Arcy is a good actor too, but there are at least 500 other similar actors you could switch him out with in random scenes without me noticing. Gabriel Mann’s Father Francis was an actual character and performance. He gave him such an innocent, kind presence, dorky, flawed but sincere, a realistic human, not just a generic, flavorless biscuit who makes the intense face in the appropriate scenes. (And if Schrader had wanted to do the scene where they pin each other against walls, Mann would’ve made that way more interesting too.)
When they go inside the church it’s the same idea that the weapons on the statues are pointing down, protecting us from something below. But also the church has been desecrated – a huge stone crucifix is broken off and hanging upside down from a chain. As far as desecrations go it’s scary in the sense that it could fall and crush you, but far less imaginative than the weird dick and boobs added to the Virgin Mary in the original EXORCIST.
They kept the odd detail that Granville collects butterflies, and they throw in a scene where his collection come alive and flap their wings (an homage to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD?).
There’s a new subplot about a previous archaeologist, Bession (Patrick O’Kane, “Hux’s First Order Officer,” THE LAST JEDI), who went mad. Merrin goes to talk to him in the sanitarium and, I don’t know if you’d be able to predict this, but he’s in a cell surrounded by crazy drawings of Pazuzu. He turns around, quotes Merrin’s trauma to him, carves a swastika in his own chest and slashes his own jugular. Merrin later lies to Sarah about it, saying he died in an accident, not knowing that guy was her husband.
Another bonus subplot is about a cemetery that Merrin digs up (kind of cool – who doesn’t enjoy a little grave robbing?) and discovers the graves are empty, and then he learns that this is believed to be the place where Lucifer fell from Heaven and a bunch of shit happened there and they built the church there and the Vatican knew about it all along. At the same time, they put in way more references to Pazuzu, including re-creating statue from the Iraq prologue in THE EXORCIST, except he no longer has a boner, or a dick at all, unless you count the snake. Looks like the woke mob got to him. Anyway I didn’t understand how this was all about Lucifer and Pazuzu. Maybe they went to college together or something.
Very early in the movie I was sincerely thinking, okay… this is the dumbed down version of the Schrader movie, it shouldn’t have happened, but it’s gonna be fun for what it is. That spell wore off pretty quick, though. I don’t mind that the studio got more of the “hardcore horror” things that Schrader resisted. Sarah has a dream where Joseph is cradling something under a blanket, it turns out to be James’ severed head. Lots of stuff with dead crows, swarms of flies and maggots, lights strobing, buildings shaking, blood smeared on walls (sometimes in the vague shape of Pazuzu). This sexually harassing Australian guy named Jefferies (Alan Ford, LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS) gets nasty pustules on his face, they start dripping green pus, maybe like the slime Regan puked. And when the Turkana try to do their version of an exorcism (which seems like it might include killing the kid) magic wind blows in, shatters windows, pulls their bones in wrong directions, breaking them before they can touch him, which is sort of like how the demon fought the two exorcists in the first movie.
The only Schrader footage I noticed them re-using was the stillbirth scene, now intercut with him opening a tomb under the church, leaving no intriguing ambiguity about what’s causing it. So it’s definitely more of a straightforward normal person horror movie. But it’s, at best, an average straightforward normal person horror movie. It’s not a good trade off for taking out all the interesting ideas, intense dramatic moments and moral quandaries, and severely downgrading interesting supporting characters into generic empty shells. Although the whole thing is a drastic reshaping of the story, there were very few moments I thought, “oh, that was a pretty good addition” and zero parts where I thought, “that was a better way to do it!” Sorry Renny. It does not die harder.
But since it is in fact A Film By Renny Harlin, a full on battle happens between the British and the Turkana, many people are shot or stabbed with spears, axes, bayonets, things on fire, blood splattering. Meanwhile, Merrin has to go into the church, where he finds the blood of Father Francis and his crucifix and holy water, and he picks the latter two up to take on the demon, now in the body of Sarah, doing a few digitally assisted contortions, flashing her boobs at him, tearing her tongue to look like a lizard’s, grinding on top of him, getting knocked through the air and spider-crawling across the top of the cave. Her makeup looks like Regan but there’s definitely a Deadite vibe to much of this – cackling, flying, hair blowing. And it’s a little Raimi-esque when she runs at him and he holds up the cross and her body bends backwards cartoonishly.
That kind of stuff seems questionable in an official EXORCIST joint, but I can’t complain, it’s still fun. Instead I’ll complain about how it seems like they made a list of all the most impactful, get you in the gut parts of DOMINION, and said “oh jesus christ no, we can’t do that – cut that out and replace it with some bullshit.” So many of the big story changes cut all the drama and meaning and heart out of it.
For example, the new Crusades opening is cool, I can enjoy some flashy digital nonsense with a thousand dead guys being eaten by crows and hyenas. But opening with that means it doesn’t open with the harrowing occupied Holland incident that shapes the original story. For a while I thought they weren’t even going to use it at all, but we start to see pieces of it in flashbacks as Merrin remembers the trauma that made him quit being a priest. We see it a few times with just the lieutenant terrorizing people, so then I was convinced they’d leave out the important part, that Merrin gives in and chooses which villagers to kill. They finally show that an hour and nine minutes in.
Okay, so they keep us in suspense about what specifically haunts him so much, but it’s basically the same idea, right? Well, its placement here is actually a big change, because now we’ve seen him being the good guy for more than half a movie, we’re predisposed to be on his side when he’s pushed to do something horrible. In the other version the worst moment of his life is our introduction to the character, and we build our understanding of him on top of that: Here is what he did. He probly didn’t have a choice. He probly saved lives. But he went there. It’s way more interesting to start from that moment of weakness.
And more importantly, Harlin adds this whole bit where the memories centering around an angelic little girl, and eventually the demon takes the form of this girl to taunt Merrin. When the full incident is revealed, this is the girl the lieutenant kills to show he’s serious when Merrin refuses to name the worst person in town, who deserves to be killed. So this version of Merrin’s guilt is about the fact that he hesitated to name names, rather than that he did it. That changes everything.
Another one that doesn’t seem that big until you think about it is that instead of some soldiers looting and getting killed it’s the death of Jefferies that sets off Granville. With this one change we lose the critique of occupying forces, the tension between the soldiers and civilians, and of course the absolutely crucial idea of the the behavior of the British forces in Kenya echoing those of the Nazis in Holland. It’s normal for a studio to make some dumb bullshit movie, but it’s amazing that in this case they accidentally hired a guy who made a really powerful, interesting version and they said, “Whoops! We meant to tell you to not do all the things that made it worth doing. See ya!”
One final one for you. In DOMINION the doctor says, “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.” She’s describing the concentration camp she survived, so she knows what she’s talking about. In Harlin’s version it’s Merrin who says something like that to the doctor: “Sarah, it’s so much easier to believe in evil as an entity, but it’s not. It’s a purely human condition inside all of us.” I hate that in this version, Sarah knows she’s right, there is an entity, Merrin is wrong and will later have to face it. In DOMINION yeah, there’s an entity, but the movie spends more time showing all the ways evil is part of the human condition. In THE BEGINNING, yeah – don’t worry. It’s just an ogre.
It was also ogres who made DOMINION into THE BEGINNING. Everybody’s off the hook.
Ultimately Father Merrin doesn’t bring his employer the Pazuzu head, but Harlin did. This movie only proves DOMINION’s thesis, because if one human being can direct both CLIFFHANGER and EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, then obviously we contain the capacity for both good and evil. EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING is a human condition.