Why make a prequel? To cash in on a film franchise, of course. But what happens when that franchise is over 30 years old, and child star Linda Blair has grown from a pea-soup spewing child into a career cameo? In the case of The Exorcist, you get not one, but two competing versions of the same film, with the same actors, the same shots, and completely opposing motives. Gus Van Sant replayed Psycho shot-by-shot, in homage to the original. In a weird twist, we've got Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, and The Exorcist: The Beginning, redundant homage unto themselves, which collectively go under the name Exorcist: The Prequel.
The overall consensus seems to be that Paul Schrader's version (the original version that was tossed back into the pond when Morgan Creek films deemed it too "Paul Schrader-y", retrieved after uber-Finn Renny Harlin's version merely broke even, and Schrader's Dominion got a thumbs up at the Brussels International Film Festival) is the superior one—made lame, perhaps, by the swarm of gossip surrounding the cousin films.
In the case of the Christian Science Monitor, Dominion doesn't suffer under the yoke of "prequel," and is as good as a Good vs. Evil film can get. CSM gives it four stars because it's "right up Schrader's alley," Schrader, being writer of Bringing Out the Dead, Taxi Driver, and director of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Out of curiosity, I investigated the background of the CSM and its reviews, just to see if being a Christian rag obligated them to adoration of anything involving the attempted triumph of good over evil. What I found out first is that the paper is not a "religious periodical," but a "real newspaper published by a church." With that clear in my mind, I plowed ahead. Additional investigation yielded surprising results: Kingdom of Heaven, two stars; Monster-in-Law (don't tell me there isn't a good/evil theme there), 1 star; Van Helsing? Not as good as Godzilla; and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton was cheerily okay. So no, no obvious bias.
Even Roger Ebert waxed poetic about Schrader's version (although I think old age has given him a form of "film cataracts.") The buried church uncovered by ex-priest Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) while on his sabbatical (of sorts) "seems intended not so much as to celebrate God as to trap something unspeakably evil that lies beneath it." Ebert's review reads like a trailer voice-over, but he does give us a little perspective on how two films, so similar and yet so different, can be exciting in their own right. Harlin's might be more gloom and boom, and Schrader's thoughtfully morbid, but "each version makes the other more interesting," and it's a rare, near Dogme 95 thing to be able to compare prequels so.
Variety's Leslie Felperin, with her typical Brit-succinctness, finds the Schrader flick "intelligent, quietly subversive" and notes that "the first person the Nazi shoots in Schrader's pic is a grown woman, whereas in Harlin's it's a cute, braided-hair moppet—which pretty much sums up the difference in tone between the two." Schrader deprives us of the classic horror-film twisty ending that Harlin sticks to: we know for sure who's possessed and who's not. The fact that Felperin makes reference to the "meaty and smart" midsection of Schrader's film as being akin to "the dense feel [of] ... Mishima," made me nervous and excited: though Mishima is one of my favorite flicks, I'm not sure I want a horror film to "[achieve] moments of real cinematic poetry" despite bad CGI.
New York Post's Kyle Smith is one of the few reviewers to prefer Harlin's prequel. His reasoning? Because at the very least it "had cheap thrills." (That's what I call relative reasoning.) He snorts and stomps all over Schrader's formulaic hodgepodge of CGI, swoop shots, and "less introspective acting"—in other words, the cheap budget shows. The "hyenas of Satan [are] about as frightening as the Country Bear Jamboree." Linda Blair's vomit and curse scenes are what impress Smith, not thin, metaphysical horror.
But then along comes witty Stephen Holden, who, while generally gutting both films as an utter waste of time, appreciates the "serious metaphysical investigation" by Schrader. Dominion might be "tastefully gloomy, sometimes plodding and occasionally impenetrable," but Harlin's a "flashy hack" who relies on actual, not metaphysical horror: maggoty babies and the like. Holden's makes a musical comparison (literal) of the two films. On Harlin's side, Faith No More; on Schrader's, Sade: they both sound good to the right audience, but honestly, they're commercial franchises.
Okay, let's summarize our Metacritic scores: Christian Science Monitor, 100; Roger Ebert, 75; Variety, 60; Kyle Smith of the New York Post, 50; Stephen Holden, 40. Yet excepting the spastically argumentative Smith, most agree that not only does Stellan Skarsgard give better performance in Schrader's peace, but if you close your eyes when the CGI rolls around, there's more intelligence and less Hollywood in Schrader, and more classic prequel in Harlin. Which I suppose is no surprise at all.