I can see why the folks at Warner Bros. watched the screening of Paul Schrader’s version of the EXORCIST prequel and panicked. They were, after all, working under the curse of the franchise sequels, which had all more or less tanked to critical brickbats and, further which, they might have hoped to avoid by making a prequel. The original was a phenomenon, terrifying audiences into fits and fainting and the not infrequent bout of regurgitation. If that was the studio’s aim, DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, wasn’t going to deliver. It would also explain why bringing Renny Harlin in to gut the Schrader opus and re-think it as an action flick might have seemed like a good idea. Panic does that.
The thing is, DOMINION is not the tragic mess that Harlin’s version is. To be sure, there are problems with this tale of how Father Lankester Merrin first met the demon that possessed the innocent child, Regan, in the original. Pacing is one of them. The other is Stellan Skarsgard, one of the only participants in Schrader’s version to leap to Harlin’s. As the tortured Father Merrin, carrying the guilt of an impossible decision with him, he is less conflicted than narcoleptic. Granted, sleeplessness is a classic symptom of the sort of psychological state Father Merrin finds himself in, but cinematically, it doesn’t so much make the audience empathize with his struggle as want to take a nap.
The plot follows the same general outline as Harlin’s. Merrin, burdened by an act he committed during World War II that has made him question his calling, is on an archeological expedition in Kenya in 1947. His object is to discover the earliest traces of Christianity, but what he finds is much older. It’s buried beneath a church that was itself buried right after its construction. There are odd things about the iconography, not so much the blood and guts of the angelic battle that preceded Lucifer’s fall, no, it’s that all the statues are focused on the ground, not Heaven, as would be expected.
This being Kenya, there’s also an occupying British force, which presents its own problems. For Merrin, there’s also the idealistic priest, Father Francis (a stunningly fresh-faced Gabriel Mann) that the Vatican has foisted upon him as a condition of allowing him to continue. Naturally, when they finally get inside the newly excavated church, this one blissfully lacking the swastika-Magen David motif that Harlin added), the ancient evil is let loose and begins to infect everyone in the vicinity. The miraculous healing of the village outcast and a herd of cattle that suddenly become not just belligerent, but carnivorous ensues, all leading up to the requisite exorcism and Merrin’s return to the priestly fold.
This is a much quieter film, more concerned with contemplating the struggle between good and evil as one that isn’t necessarily stacked in good’s favor. There are special effects simulating the supernatural, some of them quite effective, but none is as disturbing or as haunting as the simulacrum of what people do when they give into their baser instincts, no matter what the impetus might be. To compare and contrast, there is a character’s suicide. In Harlin’s version, it was an extended and tedious sequence of special effects demonstrating the demon’s power over the victim’s mind. In Schrader’s, it occurs in the middle of a conversation in which the future suicide is consciously grappling with what is happening and when it happens, it, like the sequence, is swift and deliberate. If only the film as a whole could have sustained that level of emotional punch to the gut. Both films have, you’ll pardon the term, dead spots, but Harlin’s pyrotechnics somehow emphasize them more, like a bad tap dancer who thinks that dancing faster will make him dance better.
As for the exorcism, it is definitely not the derivative of the original, but its interesting take on the seductive power of evil is drawn out and damped down to the point that the cathartic payoff is completely lacking. A dream sequence that haunts Merrin is less haunting than without a frame of reference until too late in the proceedings, rendering it a useless bit of flotsam. Then there’s the emotional connection, perhaps intended as tension, between Merrin and the pretty doctor, a survivor of Hitler’s death camps, which the film assumes but doesn’t explore.
DOMINION is an intriguing near-miss rather than the unintentional laugh-fest that Harlin’s version proved to be. If only the powers-that-be who decided to chuck Schrader’s attempt had had the imagination and the chutzpah to tweak what could have been an effective, even great, supernatural thriller, instead of going for the lowest common denominator.