Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Devil You Know

Year: 2005
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Now here’s the moment I’ve been waiting for! It was hard to get through that Exorcist: The Beginning review with a straight face, because I knew this twist was waiting in the wings. As many film nerds probably know, but I was secretly hoping you didn’t, The Beginning isn’t just one movie. It’s the top of a massive iceberg that reveals the lunatic depths of the Hollywood system.

You see, the Renny Harlin film actually began its life as an Exorcist prequel set in Africa and starring Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin. So far, so good, but get this: It was originally directed by Paul Schrader (the Taxi Driver and Raging Bull screenwriter who went on to direct such illustrious masterworks as The Canyons), but when he turned in his completed cut to the studio, they recoiled like a vampire at a garlic factory. Where was the blood they wanted? What was this (urp) psychological drama that was unspooling before their very eyes? Instead of scrapping the project, they kept the leading, setting, and basic plot as well as some choice selections from the original footage, hired a sexier supporting cast, ladled heaps of CGI carnage onto the project, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Then, when The Beginning T-boned the box office and began hemorrhaging money, they gave Schrader a pittance to complete his effects, and quietly released his original cut as Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist nine months later, hoping nobody would notice. And that’s how we got one of the most fascinating sets of films in Hollywood history. Where else will you find an example of two directors approaching the exact same material to make two completely different movies? It’s an exciting experiment in auteur theory: how did these two men apply their own personalities and artistic desires to the film? We almost never get the opportunity to compare and contrast directorial style like this, and it’s only incidental that the films both kinda suck.

Come on, you had to have expected that at this point.

I thought the plot section might be a breeze, highlighting a couple differences from The Beginning’s plot an calling it a day, but Dominion is such a fundamentally separate entity that I’ll have to start from scratch. Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) is a lapsed priest, having begun to doubt his faith after surviving the atrocities of the Nazi regime in Holland. Already the film is more coherent, presenting – wonder of wonders – a complete scene and using it to inform the character’s motivations later on. That may seem like screenwriting 101, but we’re dealing with Renny Harlin here.

Anyway, Merrin is now an archaeologist working at a dig uncovering a buried church in an African valley. Instead of the spooky, torchlit Indiana Jones funhouse of The Beginning, it’s a bright, clean building that’s eerie for why it’s there, not how it looks. Point Dominion. Opening the church seems to once again (or rather, once before) have unleashed an ancient evil upon the valley, targeting the innocent missionary Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), the camp doctor Rachel (Clara Bellar, who The Beginning recast with an actress more willing to wear low-cut tops), and especially Cheche (Billy Crawford), a wild, deformed boy who the villagers believe to be cursed, who Rachel is attempting to rehabilitate.

Quite literally, all hell breaks loose, as tensions erupt between the British soldiers and African tribesmen, a series of grisly murders rock the community, and Cheche’s accelerated healing turns out to be the result of a demon who challenges everything Merrin believes in.

Or rather, doesn’t believe in.

What Paul Schrader has delivered here is certainly worth closer examination. Although Dominion is only a truly great film when viewed in comparison to the maelstrom we call Exorcist: The Beginning, the psychological and philosophical concepts developed in the script are worthy of inclusion in the grand scheme of this disproportionately heady horror franchise. But the same could be said of Exorcist II: The Heretic, and look where that got us. Good ideas do not a good movie make, especially in the horror genre.

Dominion’s first priority is to provoke thought, not to scare us, but it does neither particularly well. Part of the blame can be shifted to the sawn-off post-production budget, a limp affair that resulted in a pack of CGI hyenas so lamentably ill-rendered that they’re essentially just one big pixel each. But the leading cause of the film’s total inability to translate from script to screen is the acting. I don’t know if this speaks to Schrader’s facility with his performers or if Renny Harlin’s casting director made the right call, but the ensemble here is uniformly unimpressive.

Skarsgård is a bit forgettable in both movies because Young Father Merrin is a bland character no matter who spices the broth, but he’s by far the best asset of the cast. Clara Bellar graces the screen with the delicacy and emotional resonance of a cheese sandwich, Gabriel Mann chews the scenery so thoroughly that it has to be inspected for termites, and the various extras called upon to recite dialogue are gloriously abysmal. The man tasked with playing a Nazi psychopath is so clearly uncomfortable with his role that he speaks like he’s giving a museum tour, and the crowd he torments are hardly any better, their bored utterances completely undermining the riveting tension captured in the dialogue.

“Holocaust? Oh, that seems pretty bad, huh?”

This tin of ham they call a cast strangles the script, which really does have some memorable moments. As tensions rise and people fall victim to the evil blossoming in the hearts of man, some truly shocking stuff goes down, stuff which Renny Harlin would cherry pick and toss into the barrel of The Beginning without actually considering if they fit into his version of the story (spoiler alert: they don’t). And although the climactic exorcism is probably the weakest of the entire series (discounting The Heretic, which didn’t f**king have one), it at least finally abandons the pretense that these scenes are anything but a poorly disguised conduit for theological pontification.

So. Dominion is a more coherent film than Exorcist: The Beginning. Which isn’t really a fair metric, considering that Salvador Dalí has made more coherent films than Exorcist: The Beginning. With the same script and a different director (a third director – could you even imagine? What if Hollywood stopped everything and only made Exorcist prequels from now on?), Dominion could have been a good, even great film. But as it stands, it’s just a rather interesting footnote in a long-running series of flops.

TL;DR: Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is a better film that its jagged clone, but it's still a weak entry in an even weaker franchise.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1153
Reviews In This Series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)


  1. "such illustrious masterworks as The Canyons"


    ...Eh. Not anybody's finest hour, was it?

    You know, I feel a little bad for old Stellan Skarsgard. He's a fine actor, but he must be let down by his material something like 50% of the damned time, if not more.

    But anyway: is The Exorcist franchise your least favorite of all the ones you've done, B, or what?

    1. Well, I've done the Saw franchise, and I can't imagine anything would be much worse than that collective catastrophe, but The Exorcist has certainly been the most unpleasant slog. I'm glad there were only 5, because I'm not sure I could have survived it.