Fans can get finally get a look at the other side of the Exorcist prequel coin this week with the DVD release of Paul Schrader's Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist. It is the point to Renny Harlin's 2004 counterpoint Exorcist: The Beginning, and while it is a slightly better film than Harlin's, there remains a question as to why production company Morgan Creek commissioned either one of them, or why Warner Brothers bothered to re-cut the original Exorcist, as they did back in 2000.
The story of why there were two somewhat similar prequels goes like this: Morgan Creek had first planned to make the film with John Frankenheimer directing and Liam Neeson as Father Merrin. The veteran Manchurian Candidate director fell ill, though (and later died), so Morgan Creek tapped writer and sometimes director Schrader, Scorsese's scribe on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Schrader was to craft a compelling story of Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) and his first contact with the demon that the Max Von Sydow version of himself would meet 25 years later when it possessed young Regan MacNeill in a posh Washington brownstone. Schrader, with a screenplay by William Wisher and novelist Caleb Carr, completed the film, which was ultimately rejected by Morgan Creek, which apparently wanted something more traditional. Translation: they wanted something the kids would dig.
It is pretty easy to see why Schrader's version might not fit that bill. It is deliberately paced, quiet and moody and while made with competence, it is really rather boring. They set up Merrin's conflict early on (he feels tremendous guilt for not being able to save some villagers from the Nazis in wartime Holland), but do not play this internal tug-of-war all that dynamically. His sojourn on an archaeological dig in British East Africa in 1947 is his chance to get in touch with his faith again, and while he becomes hip to the existence of God (through the Devil), Schrader and company to not take enough chances to deliver a satisfying enough payoff.
Schrader offers a pretty honest explanation for this on the commentary track, stating that making the Regan character a crippled outcast (Billy Crawford) -- someone who is already despised by his village -- was the reason that the possession didn't have a bigger impact. Crawford, a popular singing star in Europe, still does a fine job, even though it seems a bit too much like Wisher and Carr were trying too hard to explain things from the original (like the terrifying white face shown only in cut frames, which Crawford morphs into). The commentary is otherwise as pokey as the film, with Schrader dropping off entirely for long spells or going on about how Skarsgård played Merrin like John Wayne.
Dominion's female lead, a nurse and concentration camp survivor named Rachel (Clara Bellar), is so underdeveloped that she could have been written out entirely, or at least intertwined with Merrin's guilt in some real way. A lame dream sequence (and aren't most dream sequences lame?) is also pretty glaring, and the ever-present CGI hyenas are meant to be some sort of symbol, though it does not become clear exactly what kind.
Prequels like Dominion and Exorcist: The Beginning, by their very nature, mock the Laws of Dramatic Tension. Typically, prequel producers, in an effort to enhance one or more of the characters we already know so well (and their own bank accounts) give us a side to the story that is supposed to be essential in our understanding and appreciation of it on a grander scale. The big problem is that most movies that are prequelized involve these characters in some dire bodily peril, and if we already know they make it to the next story, we know that they could take a bazooka shell to the face, point-blank, and survive. This is part of why many have characterized the Star Wars prequels as all flash and no flesh.
In Renny Harlin's Exorcist: The Beginning, we are given slightly different insight into the grappling-with-faith that the young Father Merrin (Skarsgård again) does as a result of his first encounter with the demon Pazuzu. From an acting standpoint, both versions mark a solid effort, as the versatile Skarsgård again brings a decent range of emotion to the part, painting a rather thoughtful portrait of a soul in crisis. If only the rest of the movie matched him.
Harlin has displayed a full range of abilities as an action director, from drivel like Driven to badass love letters (to then-wife Geena Davis) such as The Long Kiss Goodnight. Here, though, he cannot resist the urge to extol the gaudier trappings of the action genre that has served him so well. This Exorcist could be more about demons within (like 1990's notable and overlooked Exorcist III), but in Harlin's hands, it is only a superficial approximation of scary that no amount of creatively-lit set pieces or hot, filthy-mouthed possessed chicks could amp up. At least it's not akin to the legendary abomination, Exorcist II: The Heretic (that would be a repeat of history that even The Devil Himself, planning for another six millennia, could not affect.) In the end, there are parts of both films that if edited together, might make a better film, but at this point, it is probably best that we all just call it a day and walk away, as there is really nothing left to see here.
We really can't talk about any Exorcist sequels or prequels without considering the movie that started it all. In 1973, America's fear of losing control of its children, cultivated by a decade of disillusioned unrest, took form when movie studio Warner Brothers, on the day after Christmas, released The Exorcist, the story of a 12-year-old girl who is possessed by a demon. The movie, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own best-selling, allegedly fact-based novel, was directed by William Friedkin and became a national sensation, grossing a staggering $150 million, which, adjusted for inflation, is over $550 million today (nearly as much as Titanic's $600 million). Theater owners' tales of woe included seats soiled and aisle carpets fouled by incontinent and queasy patrons, many of whom, having just had the bejesus scared into them, would make straight for the nearest church after the show.
Not to sound like an old fart, but audiences of today generally don't find this Exorcist (or its remastered 2000 revision) very scary. This is especially true when you consider how tastes and needs have changed over the years, and that there are other truer horrors in the world, like the fact that somewhere, despite claims to the contrary, scientists have probably cloned a human being (and patented him, to boot). The Exorcist, regardless of its unconventional narrative and renegade production design, is likely to elicit an unenthusiastic "not very scary at all," from first-timers despite Linda Blair's still-phenomenal performance and a solid turn from the late Jason Miller as the conflicted Father Damien Karras. Besides, as we learned from the Michael Jackson trial, with a good attorney, eternal damnation might only seem like a long weekend in Newark without air conditioning, anyway.
Like Jaws became two years later, The Exorcist, at one time, was the stuff of playground legend. Even when a kid had an older brother or sister who knew someone who saw the movie, he was to be afforded the same kind of "Who wants to touch me?" respect Eric Cartman got after seeing Terrence & Phillip: Asses Of Fire in the South Park movie. The idea that the movie was making grown-ups pass out from fear gave it such instant appeal with those who were not old enough to see it, and ultimately, a reputation that it couldn't possibly live up to when they were.
The original film's compelling examination of faith, through the character of the Father Karras, took an unfortunate backseat to the spectacle. Here, in this Blatty-approved Version You've Never Seen, though -- and it is telling that Warner has not slated it a "Director's Cut" like they did with Ridley Scott's tenth anniversary cut of Blade Runner in 1992 -- it has been given some extra attention. This is done at the expense of the movie's mood and already-questionable pacing, however. The movie was already too long, especially with the seemingly interminable introduction set in an Iraqi dig site, and the extra footage makes it seem longer by twice the actual 11 minutes. Blatty's restored original ending, a silly exchange between Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) and Father Dyer (Rev. William O'Malley) intended as a nod to Casablanca, is inappropriate and out-of-place, like the infamous, restored "spider walking" scene in which young Regan (Blair) contorts and walks backwards down the stairs.
In 1997, when George Lucas re-released his Special Edition Star Wars trilogy with additional scenes and enhanced special effects, he set a dangerous precedent. Ever the tinkerer, Lucas, in one of the most grotesque of changes to the original Star Wars, altered Han Solo's character entirely by making the Rodian bounty hunter, Greedo, shoot first in the cantina scene. It's revisionist, subjective cinematic history which many film purists consider blasphemy. Likewise, The Exorcist is too willing to betray its former self, too, though deep down, something is wailing, as if to cry out to Warner Brothers, like Father Karras' mother did in his dreams, "Why you do this to me, Dami?"