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Altar native narrative
A UK region 2 DVD review and comparison of Paul Schrader's DOMINION – A PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST
and Renny Harlin's EXORCIST IV: THE BEGINNING (both purporting to be prequels to The Exorcist and not merely
tired third sequels, by Camus
 

Dictionary definition of 'guilt':
A feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation

We'll get to the guilt soon enough…

introduction

William Friedkin went colossally over schedule and budget directing the original movie of novelist William Peter Blatty's 70s best seller The Exorcist. Already rightly Oscared™ for The French Connection, his ego at that time had not landed. The complaints from the Warner Brothers' powers-that-were, were significant. "You can see the wires!" was one of them (and indeed if you look closely you actually can still see the wires). But. A huge 'but'. When a film is made as meticulously and as well as this one was, who cared? There was a slavish attention to both character and plot, oh, so appreciated in a 'horror' film and the special effects were ground-breaking for the time. It didn't matter that a short sequence contained a few shots, giveaways that it was 'only a movie'. You see, The Exorcist was never only a movie... The Exorcist was a rite of passage. The Exorcist was an experience to get through to become a member of the "I've seen The Exorcist" club. I saw. I don't think I ever got through it though.

"What an excellent day for an exorcism..." Still chilling after over thirty years.

I presume we're all familiar with the plot of the original? Those that are, please move on down a hyphen and a full stop – a young girl in Washington DC is inexplicably possessed by a demon and battles with two priests in an exorcism to save her life and conceivably her soul. It was one of the most shocking films of the 70s, featuring scenes that would fall foul of PC censorship today. You wouldn't even get to write some of the more notorious scenes in script form. Your word processor would report you to the FBI before you could say 'cruelty to children'. I was going to say 'paedophilia' but the only thing violating Reagan Teresa McNeil was a crucifix. Jesus. There are six letters in each of her names (666) and so what a shame her name was really Regan Teresa MacNeil. Nowadays, after The Exorcist's justifiable cinematic-canonisation by critic Mark Kermode, the film suffers from its own reputation. It's been Ker-moded, brought into the light, pored over and dissected – even re-released re-cut to drum up more money. The next generation, those raised to regard apathy as a fashion accessory, will have none of it. Standing next to a few teenagers eyeing the cover of the film, muttered dis-missives came, like the infamous pea soup, thick and fast. "Seen it. It's crap. It's not scary..." I cannot stress how close I came to actively search for a time machine.

Well. Let me take you back to the mid 70s, plonk you in a cavernous cinema (you have got in under-age by the way (your platforms are chafing) so that adds to the potential scare-factor) and show you a film that scared the be-Jesus, the be-Buddha and the be-Mohammed out of me. You have no pause button. You have no volume control. You have no escape. Trust me, Kermode is right. The Exorcist is without question one of the best horror movies ever made. I've not seen enough non-English language horror movies so 'one of the' will have to suffice. So let's roll out John Boorman's sequel. Oh, the power of Christ compels me not to (trust me, it's beyond execrable; it is too execrable – and beyond). What about the novelist's own stab (or rather decapitation) at directing Exorcist sequels? Well, I admired Exorcist III for all sorts of reasons (chiefly Jason Miller's welcome reprise as Father Damien Karras and the ever earnestly convincing George C. Scott) but also for one moment of shock that made me jump higher than Cheech and Chong. It's a moment I recently played to a class full of fourteen year olds and they all jumped as high as I did. If you see the second sequel, you'll know exactly which part I mean. What was missing in both sequels was something the original generated in spades, something you took home with you, something that poisoned your imagination, something that sat like a dark, malodorous stain in your memory. What was it?

It was dread; a great fear, a spectre at your shoulder that told you that the irrational will kill you. Powerful stuff.

So how about a dreadful 3rd sequel? Can you imagine being an exec these days? "Hey, Batman went back to the origin story…" "Superman is also back to his origin too." "Even an Indiana Jones sequel went backwards…" So what about Father Merrin's travails in Africa, briefly mentioned in Friedkin's superb original? That throw-away line committed Morgan Creek to invest in two prequels. Why two? The first was offered to Paul Schrader. Schrader is a familiar cinephile/writer/director to Outsider. He lost his job as a critic because he dared to trounce Easy Rider. He wrote Taxi Driver (Travis Bickle must be the patron saint of American Outsider cinema). His love of firearms even took right wing arms enthusiast and fellow writer/director John Milius by surprise. He was an interesting choice given the man's history (faith features heavily in Calvinist Schrader's background as he was forbidden to watch movies as a child). "We believed in a very real hell and very real evil. My mother took my hand once and stabbed me with a needle. She said, 'You know how that felt, when the needle hit your thumb? Well, hell is like that ... all the time!'" Way to go, Mom… You have to love religious faith, no? Schrader's Exorcist IV (or Dominion) was rejected by Morgan Creek. Apparently he did not make a scary enough movie. Is it me or don't execs read the scripts they employ people to make? Couldn't anyone tell if Dominion was going to be scary? Or is it really all in the direction and never on the page? That's quite a loaded question.

So they shelved it (they shelved it completely, no re-shoots, no rescues, they chucked almost all of it away). Then in an unusual move, even for Hollywood, they kept the same actor to play the same leading role, the same actors in the supporting roles with a few exceptions, ever-so-slightly rewrote the script and hired Renny Harlin to make the second one from exactly the same story. The mind boggles. This is the first time I know of in Hollywood history that two movies can be legitimately compared, both bastard twins from the same warped womb.

And they are both... No, won't spoil that surprise.

common (consecrated) ground

The basic story on which both movies are based has some intriguing elements. Father Lancaster Merrin (or Lankester, depending on the source), von Sydow from the original, has had a really bad experience with the Nazis in Holland. Think Sophie's Choice times ten. He loses his faith, as you do, and is plunged into a black hole of guilt. This, of course, means he transforms into Indiana Jones and moves out to Africa to fetch an unnamed item from a buried church. The locals believe the church houses an evil spirit (my god, the locals, at last, are right!) and do not want the white clergy digging it up supported by the British Army. High jinks ensue – bloody deaths in both movies – and Merrin is forced to admit, "OK, there really is a God and I'd better believe it before I become Demon paté…" The power of Christ compels him.

Schrader's Dominion is the more sedate affair attempting to bring out a sort of metaphysical discomfort for the hero (guilt in Merrin's case under Schrader is Stellen Skarsgård looking miserable a lot). Permit me a s(n)ide note regarding guilt. I've always thought that if the feeling of having done wrong was a prison sentence, guilt was the time you chastised yourself for. In effect, guilt absolved you of your wrong-doing. Guilt is preparing the permission to do the bad thing again. It's a slate cleaner. I would probably be more appreciative of Schrader's take on Merrin if I afforded guilt the profound depths of sorrow and existential anguish as Schrader clearly does. The Nazi event is shown front and centre so the audience is absolutely certain why Merrin is like he is.

Harlin went for the slow burn and leaked out details of the incident over the running time (a better option for my money as there was a sort of tickle of suspense, that is you kept asking yourself "What did happen to Merrin in Holland?"). Harlin's Beginning is the bells and whistles prequel. It's not certain if he ever saw Schrader's cut but there are so many direct similarities, I often wondered if both men used the same storyboard artist. In terms of the profundity of guilt in Harlin's Merrin, let's just say Harlin doesn't strike me as the profound type. No, Merrin is a miserable Indiana Jones. Harlin goes straight for the CG set piece with an intriguing opening featuring an ancient war. The only link to anything in the Exorcist universe is that literally damned Pazuzu head. So it's pretty meaningless in the sense of both pretty (a lengthy CG pull back over thousands of crucified bodies, quite a 'Wow!' shot) and utterly meaningless. Harlin quotes Friedkin a lot except for the dread of course. Neither of the film-makers get the dread right (or at all) but I suspect that's a fifty-fifty responsibility split between them and the twenty first century Hollywood machine.
 
You know those moments in movies, the bucket of water in the face of the audience? The 'we didn't have enough money to get this right' moment. Let's call it the Scorpion King débacle (see The Mummy sequel and tell me ILM were at the top of their game). The African boy soon to be possessed is shunned by his tribespeople. Merrin wants to offer him water (not in the face). A lovely hyena growl makes you jump from the left speaker and out pop three or four examples of cheap CG animals which take you out of the movie as sure as an attack of diarrhoea. Schrader does not comment on these beasts. I laughed. One should not be able to laugh in an Exorcist movie. There's also a cheap, crappy snake effect that brought to mind the earliest CG. I can only assume money was tighter than tight. By contrast Harlin's CG hyenas are almost as woeful but shot in shadow and therefore just about acceptable. The fact they are graphically tearing a young boy limb from limb kind of detracts you from being too critical. Schrader's cows eating hyenas (I suspect a mix of CG and animatronic) is just as risible. The believability of any effect in a horror movie is absolutely critical. There were two many effects shots in both efforts to pull you out of the movie and into "that's so phoney..." territory.

Schrader inserts an inept dream sequence. Coming after Karras' in the original, it succeeds only in being underdeveloped, needlessly confusing and he even admits in the commentary that because it was a dream, the significance of the woman's identity was not important. Every shot in a move has got to be important and thought out otherwise why am I watching it? Read Kermode's excellent BFI Classic volume on The Exorcist and specifically his analysis of Karras' dream and you can well understand why I'm singling Merrin's dream out. It is unfocussed and plain, vague even. Friedkin's is masterfully oblique and packed so full of meaning, it almost pushes you out of your seat. Harlin doesn't indulge himself in this area. He just gets on with the demon schtick.

One last thing, an irony if you will. The line in The Exorcist speaks of Merrin's exorcism in Africa... of Merrin having had experience; "Ten, twelve years ago, I think, in Africa. The exorcism supposedly lasted months. I heard it damn near killed him." Do we assume Merrin lied, sexed up his report? Has Harlin put his need (or presumption of his audience's need) ahead of his reverence for the original? He's so careful to adore Friedkin's masterpiece with visual quotes but in the end he has to please the audience (who presumably would balk at a two month running time) and blithely take about ten minutes to oust the demon. Well, at least this is where Schrader concurs with a similar timescale to do what's needed. That Merrin, what a fibber.
 
As a final stab in the dark as to why The Exorcist just does not work in African sunlight regardless of the director... The original film's dread, its icy foreboding was mired in the ordinary, set firm in suburbia where demonic possession only occurs after too many Ferrero Rochers. The scariest sight was the repeated shot of a bedroom door. You open up a diseased space and it's effect is diluted. In that bedroom there was real terror. Shot in the vistas of Africa are two gorgeous looking films with not one single whit of dread. A devil of a shame.

sound and vision (Dominion)

Well, here we move up a notch. Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic (honest guv, that's what it says but it measures up as 2:1), Mid budget-plus Hollywood movies always are turned out very nicely. Vittoro Storraro's cinematography makes you feel like batting away mosquitoes and the "Boo!" sound effects and especially the demon voice effects are beautifully presented with minimal but very effective use of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Surround sound use is nicely atmospheric and effect spare but jarring when it needs to be.

extra features (Dominion)

Stills
Deleted Scenes
Commentary by director Paul Schrader

Stills, OK. Not many, nothing special. The six deleted scenes have no director commentary option on them. This renders them interesting curios, out of any context, nothing more (and one of them is almost a shot for shot version of a scene in Harlin's Beginning).

Schrader's commentary is… uh. This man is an Outsider hero so I'm hesitating. He sounds almost bitter, tired and like he was reluctantly dragged into the studio to do the commentary. There are huge breaks when he obviously felt he had nothing to say (over certain scenes can you blame him? He was very quiet over the CG stuff, the silence of excruciating embarrassment perhaps). He was at his more interesting commenting on how movies have changed, how rules are now non-existent (nice to see he still takes care over things like the 'line' of sight in movie making). His admiration (like Harlin's) for Storraro was significant, often meandering off into many a Vittoria lighting story. His support for his leading lady, Clara Bellar, is refreshing given that Harlin chose to replace her wanting someone more Hollywood-glamour. All in all, a curious addition to the commentary genre.

sound and vision (The Beginning)

Presented 2.35:1 anamorphic, The Beginning boasts sumptuous visuals. Much like it's evil twin (hey, they are both evil twins, now there's a twist) the Storraro photography is superb and features light you can almost taste. Harlin's movie does enjoy quite a few CG moments but they generally serve the story and he's smart enough to keep the CG in the shadows so his hyenas at least nod towards realism. Like Dominion, the 5.1 Surround sound is excellent and the only reason for any real shocks. "Boo!" Dread? There is no dread.

extra features (The Beginning)

Theatrical Trailer
Behind The Scenes featurette
Commentary by director Rene Harlin

Hilarious! The trailer is footage from Schrader's movie! How I laughed. The Behind The Scenes featurette is funny too because everyone is reading the script – "How great it is to be working on this movie" but no one is that good an actor. Even Harlin (whose respect for the original is at least intact) comes across as a man trying so hard to be hyper-enthusiastic and falling hard at the first fence. Add to this his Finnish Arnie-like monotone and the featurette starts to work against the film itself.

The commentary track sounds like Harlin had read all the reviews. There is a resigned apologetic tone to some remarks that is almost quite touching. It's like he tried, he really did but to get to the original's level of horror, you have to have the afore mentioned time machine. His commentary is instructive with few gaps and he harks back to the original many times. Keen fans of The Exorcist don't need reminding when Harlin had visually quoted Friedkin. Given this, it was still fun to listen to, unlike the teeth pulling going on in Dominion's Special Features.

conclusion

Two Exorcist prequels, two very different directors. Both totally up Morgan Creek without a cassock. Both pretty damn poor with excellent sound and vision. Schrader's is a meandering, faux-profound treatise on faith and Harlin's is a wanton bloodbath of unutterable mediocrity. Shockingly, both are as frightening as a mug of Horlicks on crochet night. If you tamper with the greats, you give yourself ample opportunities to be compared to greatness and both Schrader's and Harlin's movies are found woefully wanting; wanting a decent script, a decent number of scares, a small number of effects that do not produce howls of derision and a modicum of common sense so the audience doesn't reach into its own logic board and say "Hang on, if this demon chappie can kill with a stare, levitate, and has superhuman strength, why doesn't it just slam Merrin into a wall at high speed and have done with him?" A shame but there it is.

Oooh! They've re-made The Omen. I cannot wait.

...long enough.

Dominion – A Prequel to The Exorcist

USA 2005
114 mins
director
Paul Schrader
starring
Stellan Skarsgård
Gabriel Mann
Clara Bellar
Billy Crawford
Ralph Brown

DVD details
region 2
video
2:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
German
Spanish
Spanish – Castillian
subtitles
English
Arabic
German
Spanish
English for the hearing impaired
German for the hearing impaired
extras
Stills
Deleted scenes
Director's commentary
distributor
Warner
release date
Out now

Exorcist: The Beginning

USA 2005
112 mins
director
Renny Harlin
starring
Stellan Skarsgård
Gabriel Mann
Clara Bellar
Billy Crawford
Ralph Brown

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
German
subtitles
English
Arabic
German
Spanish
English for the hearing impaired
German for the hearing impaired
extras
Theatrical trailer
Behind-the-scenes featurette
Director's commentary
distributor
Warner
release date
Out now
review posted
23 March 2006

See all of Camus's reviews