Surely one of the oddest big studio products of all time: an
released as two
separate films. The one under review is Paul Schrader’s
DOMINION, a thoughtful and refined--and, frankly, pretty boring--film.
DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST was initially set to
be directed by John Frankenheimer, who died before the production got
underway. Taken over by Paul Schrader, it wound up the first of the two
EXORCIST prequels to be filmed and yet the second to be released. The
footage was taken away from Schrader and incorporated into 2004’s
dreadful THE EXORCIST BEGINS by director Renny Harlin. After it bombed
Schrader somehow convinced Warner Bros. execs to let him take back the
film and complete it to his specifications--albeit with very little
money (as Harlin’s version had already pushed the $30 million budget to
well over twice that), which explains the shoddy technical credits and
patchwork score (incorporating contributions by composer Angelo
Badalamenti and the metal band Dog Fashion Disco).
During WWII the young Father Merrin is forced by Nazis
to reveal the names of several disguised priests, who are all promptly
executed. The experience causes Merrin to denounce his faith.
A few years later Merrin supervises an archeological
dig in East Africa. An ancient church is unearthed whose interior
doesn’t look like that of any other church; clearly it served a purpose
different than that of most churches, a supposition proved by a temple
underneath the church where human sacrifice was evidently performed.
The locals are growing increasingly apprehensive about
the dig, as are a band of occupying British soldiers. Yet something
amazing happens: a mute patient in the local hospital miraculously
begins speaking, which Merrin’s companion Father Francis takes as a
miracle. But then the patient begins acting freaky and orating in an
evil, grating voice--it seems he’s demonically possessed.
Merrin initially refuses to believe the reality of the
situation, but becomes convinced when Francis is senselessly killed,
leading to a final confrontation between Merrin and the demon.
This film, unfortunately, represents Paul Schrader at
his most subdued. This is a filmmaker who can be extremely stylized and
flamboyant on occasion (see MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS and
but not here; a surprising development, as Schrader was afforded one of
his largest budgets ever with DOMINION. Other problems include frequent
amateurish dissolves, bad CGI and shoddy lighting (perpetrated,
shockingly enough, by the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro).
Many of its problems seem due largely to the film’s rushed and
underfunded postproduction, but not all!
Take the acting: Stellan Skarsgard was a good choice as
the tormented Merrin, but none of the rest of the film’s cast members
make any impression. There’s also the fact that the script, credited to
William Wisher and novelist Caleb Carr, is lacking in incident and
overly preachy about its religious convictions (unlike the first
EXORCIST, whose Catholic themes registered all the more strongly for not
being shoved down our throats).
There are some good moments, including an early
Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence and Merrin’s climactic
confrontation with the demon, which is powerfully poetic and
hallucinatory. If the film’s other sequences were up to the same
standard it might have attained the classy and artistic heights Schrader
was reaching for, but they’re not and it doesn’t.
DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST
Morgan Creek Productions/Warner Bros.
Director: Paul Schrader
Producer: James G. Robinson
Screenplay: William Wisher, Caleb Carr
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Editing: Tim Silano
Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford,
Ralph Brown, Israel Aduramo, Andrew French, Antoine Kamerling, Julian
Wadham, Eddie Osei, Ilario Bisi-Pedro