We couldn’t call this a “Possession Month” at Mildly Pleased if we didn’t cover at least one Exorcist movie. So I decided to cover two! Why two? Because, much like conjoined twins, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist will always be inextricably intertwined. Even unpacking why is complicated, but let me try.
In 2002, Morgan Creek Productions greenlit a new Exorcist film called “Exorcist: The Beginning”. Paul Schrader was hired to direct and shot the film in Morocco and Rome from November 2002 to April 2003. An early 130 minute cut was shown to the studio but was criticized for “not being scary enough”. Schrader was given two more chances to re-edit the film, but the studio still hated it. So Schrader was fired and Renny Harlin was brought on to do rewrites and essentially shoot the movie over again. Lead actor, Stellan Skarsgård, was the only actor retained from the original film and the new and “improved” Exorcist: The Beginning was released in August 2004.
The film was a bomb and critically panned, and now that I’ve seen it I can say deservedly so. So bad in fact, that Morgan Creek let Schrader re-edit his original version along with a small release in New York in March 2005 followed by a DVD release in May 2005 under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. So at the end of the day this is the story of a studio that scrapped a flawed movie, replaced it with a worse movie, and then released the flawed movie anyways.
Are either movies good? Yeah, kind of. Let me start with the plot synopsis. More or less, both films are about A buried 5th century Byzantine Church that is discovered in British Kenya in 1947. With the help of archaeologist and former priest, Lancaster Merrin (Skarsgård), it is discovered that this church was built not to house god but to trap an immortal evil. Thus, by excavating the church, evil is unleashed on the unwitting populace.
The fair way to approach this review(s) would be to compare and contrast each film. “What does this version do better? What does this version do worse?” But I won’t, over the simple fact that Schrader’s Dominion does everything better than Harlin’s Beginning. Both films have a good central concept, decent photography and solid performances but not only is Schrader’s film more interesting, it’s better paced, it makes more sense, it has better scares, and way less embarrassing CGI.
Take the opening of Harlin’s version. Beginning opens during the Crusades with an injured priest who wanders onto a battlefield only to discover hundreds of Crusaders crucified upside down. A cool idea (in theory) but remember, this is 2004, which means it’s a garbage dump of cheap CGI. Style with little substance. Conversely, Dominion opens with no tinges of the supernatural or cheap CGI. It opens in 1944 in Nazi occupied Holland, where an SS Lieutenant is questioning locals about the death of a Nazi soldier. After failing to get a confession, the Lieutenant forces the local priest, (Skarsgård), to select ten locals to be executed. It’s a tense and unpredictable sequence that is easily the best scene in either film.
The opening to Dominion is what defines Merrin as a character. Merrin wants to be a servant of God but continually finds himself punished for doing so by evil forces both natural and supernatural. His faith is tested time and time again, for which he then has to find a reason to continue fighting. Beginning doesn’t have the internal struggle. We get a couple blink and you’ll miss flashes of wartime, but not enough to get a sense of what Merrin has gone through. He just has general run-of-the-mill PTSD.
It’s as if every interesting conversation about faith in Dominion is thrown out in favor of a jump scare in Beginning. “You like this scene about these guys discussing their faith? How about we cut that out and replace it with kids being attacked by CGI hyenas?” It’s like the meat of the story has been lifted out and blasted with cheese instead. Delicious as that may sound it’s not nearly as satisfying.
One of my least favorite changes is the erasure of my favorite character in Dominion. In Dominion, Gabriel Mann plays Father Francis, a missionary in the area who looks up to Merrin and wants to help him regain his faith. What’s interesting about Francis is he also becomes obsessed with a physically handicapped young man named, Cheche (Billy Crawford), who is healed of his disabilities after the church is uncovered. Francis believes Cheche has been healed by God, when in fact he’s been possessed.
Father Francis trying to come to terms with the difference between God and Satan’s powers provides for a fascinating crisis of faith. Francis has so much more to do than his equivalent in Beginning, also named Father Francis but played by James D’Arcy. I like D’Arcy but the character feels less like a character and more of a means to get Merrin from point A to point B.
Since I mentioned Cheche (the possessed figure in Dominion), I should mention that Beginning also has a possessed character, a doctor named Sarah (Izabella Scorupco). She is a love interest to Merrin and becomes possessed much in the same way as Reagan, old hag voice with the same makeup. Visually, she’s creepy but the character feels too close to Reagan. She mostly shouts obscenities and humps Merrin. It’s fine.
Ultimately, there never should have been any sequels to The Exorcist. All that needed to be said was said in the first film, but if you have to watch more, watch Exorcist III and Dominion skip the rest. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprising at all, the best Exorcist films are the slower ones with less action, more talking. Because that’s what it’s all about, coming to terms with yourself, not fighting CGI hyenas.