Paul Schrader’s DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST is better known for its own back-story than for anything that actually happens in the movie. And it is an interesting story. Essentially, after spending millions of Morgan Creek’s money, Schrader delivered his completed film. The studio didn’t like it, it wasn’t “horrific” enough. So they shelved it, brought in hack Renny Harlin and gave him millions to re-film it the way he wanted. So, essentially two movies of the exact same story were made with two different interpretations. In interest of full disclosure, I haven’t seen the Harlin version, but I’d like to for sake of comparison. As far as this film goes, it indeed isn’t that horrific, and it’s interesting for fans of the original EXORCIST, but not quite as interesting as I’d hoped.
The story opens with young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) in Poland in WWII, forced by a Nazi (with no discernable German accent) into a very awful choice. A choice that haunts him so much he essentially leaves God and the church behind. Flash forward some years, and now he’s in “British East Africa” (I’m guessing Kenya) and in charge of an archeological dig. The British authorities send along a young priest, Father Francis, assigned by Rome to keep a watch over Merrin. Throw in Rachel, a doctor/holocaust survivor, and you’ve got the makings for some ripe melodrama.
But it never really comes. Instead we get long passages with not much happening – just a lot of ominous mood created. The lowlight of this section is definitely the CGI’d dogs that had nothing to do with anything and just made us aware of the budget limitations of the movie. More promising is the presence of Cheche, a deformed kid who Merrin takes pity on. Cheche is brought to Rachel, who schemes up way to help him correct his deformities. What the kid is really suffering from is just an awful, awful make-up job.
One day they discover a church as part of the dig. Not an ancient church, but a relatively modern, Byzantine style church. But it’s not really a church at all, but something more. It’s one of the film’s few surprises, so I don’t want to give it away. But as you can imagine from my review, there’s not a lot of action in this movie. As a fan of shlocky b-movies, that left me disappointed, but from a real film perspective, I respected the restraint. Schrader was trying to make a point about the nature of evil and as a result didn’t fill his movie with gore and pea-soup (EXORCIST fans will know what that means).
Having said that, there is a final showdown between Merrin and a demon, and it is a disappointment. Not because it needed to be over-the-top, but just because it seems particularly easy for Merrin to win. Remember that line in THE EXORCIST about how Merrin’s young participation in an exorcism nearly killed him? Not in this movie. He looks refreshed and ready for supper after the five minute climax.
It is for that reason primarily that I can’t strongly recommend this movie. It has some good acting (Skarsgard is strong) and some ominous moments, but otherwise it leaves you oddly unsatisfied. For now, my rating is tentative, since I have a feeling that seeing the Harlin version will change it. Keep an eye out for an update then. In the meantime, I see this as part 1 of a 2-part experiment – and at the end of the day watching two interpretations of the same movie may prove to be very interesting.
RATING: ** and a half (out of four)