Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing the Exorcist prequel back to life.
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)/Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
Director: Renny Harlin/Paul Schrader
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Izabella Scorupco, James D’Arcy/Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar
IMDb rating: 5.1/5.4
Metacritic rating: 30/55
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the UK release of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. While that film has been voted the greatest horror film of all time on movie lists too numerous to mention, its 3 1/2 sequels have not been quite as successful. Particularly the prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning, or, more accurately, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, which for all intents and purposes is the director’s cut and the infinitely better version of the film.
The studio fired Paul Schrader, then Renny Harlin completely reshot the film using the same sets and an almost completely new cast
Both films revolve around the early adventures of Father Lancaster Merrin, the titular exorcist played in the first film by Max von Sydow and here by Stellan Skarsgård. Set shortly after World War 2, Merrin has rejected the Catholic Church after witnessing the horrors inflicted by the Nazis and is now an archaeologist. He is tasked with uncovering a strange church in the East African desert which, once opened, unleashes the demonic entity he will go on to battle in The Exorcist.
The production of the Exorcist prequel was troubled from the start. At first, John Frankenheimer was attached to direct, but withdrew due to ailing health. Eventually Paul Schrader was brought on board, but the finished film he presented to the studio was a much more deeply philosophical and psychological affair than the studio was expecting and, needless-to-say, they completely freaked out. They subsequently fired Schrader and brought in Renny Harlin to completely reshoot the film using the same sets, an almost completely new cast (save Skarsgård, who was the star) and a retooled screenplay.
The resulting film, Exorcist: The Beginning was a much slicker and more bombastic version. What it lacked in existential crisis, it tried to make up with jump-scares and pointless tedium. In respect to this film, the critics were right on the money with their pitifully low scores. However, Schrader’s version is, despite its many flaws, a more emotional film, much more concerned with how we as a species process all of the harm and injustice we inflict on one another than it is with angels, demons or Judeo-Christian spirituality, and it is all the better for it.
Ethereal evil is almost irrelevant to Schrader, who argues that extreme circumstances bring out the evil that resides in us all
In Dominion, the shadow of World War 2 plays the part of the demon that needs to be exorcised. Father Merrin grapples with his guilt over being forced by the Nazis to pick out members of his own flock for execution in retaliation for the death of an SS officer. This is the moment that proves to Merrin that there is no God, no Devil. Evil is not a separate entity trying to enslave us, but rather a capacity that all men share and fall prey to. Merrin is not the only character to suffer in this way. Rachael, the doctor at the dig site, is a Jew who suffered in the concentration camps and also tries to process the guilt she feels for offering her body to the Nazis to avoid the gas chamber.
Where Merrin lost his faith in God through his ordeal, Rachael’s belief was reaffirmed by her suffering, telling Merrin: “Sometimes the best view of God is from Hell.” These themes bubble up to the surface more and more as the dark force within the church exerts its influence over the village. But this ethereal evil is almost irrelevant to Schrader – it could be argued that it is extreme circumstances that bring out the evil that resides in us all. In the film’s climax, a young boy does become possessed, not with a literal evil but the collective evil of all mankind, and the soul Merrin is trying to save is that of the entire planet.
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Schrader posits that humanity had just endured one of the most monumental horrors of its existence, and an exorcism of all the fear and regret engendered by its remembrance must occur if we are to move on as a species. Merrin regains his faith not by any proof of God’s existence, but by witnessing so much horror and atrocity he concludes that in a world of unrelenting evil there must be a force for good.
Dominion is a much more satisfying film than The Beginning, the studio sanctioned version that got the wide release
Dominion was completely dumped by Warner Brothers as it pays lip service to the franchise in order to tell a more emotional story, while Exorcist: The Beginning goes in the opposite direction and tones down the existentialism in favour of shock tactics. Unfortunately, Dominion occasionally looks like a crummy straight-to-video cash in with terrible CGI and has an ending which is an almost nonsensical mess. But the fault there lies with the studio – despite these setbacks, Dominion is a much more satisfying film than the studio sanctioned version that got wide release. Schrader’s sorrowful and elegiac picture is the work of a master filmmaker and deserves much more attention than it has so far received.
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All images: Warner Bros