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DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST

Surely one of the oddest big studio products of all time: an EXORCIST prequel released as two separate films. The one under review is Paul Schrader’s DOMINION, a thoughtful and refined--and, frankly, pretty boring--film.

The Package
     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).

The Story
     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.

The Direction
     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 ADAM RESURRECTED), 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.
 

Vital Statistics

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
 

     

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