Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Amityville II: The Possession

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II


Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

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Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

Paul Schrader should buy Renny Harlin a car or something.

A little background. Back in 2001, the production company Morgan Creek started work on a prequel to The Exorcist (1973). The plot was to use the most obvious hook for a such a prequel, telling the story of the young boy Merrin mentioned he exorcized in Africa. Paul Schrader (aka the Guy who Wrote Taxi Driver) was tapped to direct the film.

Schrader shot his film, with Stellan Skarsgard as Father Lankester Merrin, the theory being all Swedish actors look alike. Never mind that the character is Dutch, or that Skarsgard as the "young" Merrin is actually six years older than Max Von Sydow when he played the version of Merrin who is supposed to be twenty-five years older!

The executives at Morgan Creek looked at the nearly finished film and decided to do something rarely seen in Hollywood before: They shelved Schrader's version and hired another director, Renny Harlin, to remake a movie that would never see release. The two films have nearly identical plots and share some cast members (including Skarsgard), but approach the material in entirely different ways.

Good Merrin hunting.
Among a certain kind of movie fan, the fact that film executives had decided not to release Schrader’s movie instantly anointed it as a lost classic. Obviously, the movie was a “serious” exploration of evil that the stupid movie execs couldn’t understand, and the lack of gore that the execs (allegedly) objected to was evidence that the movie was scary in an intellectual fashion. Right?

Not really. That's why Schrader owes Harlin. No matter what, Schrader's film would better by comparison. While far more coherently plotted and featuring much better developed characters than Renny Harlin’s Fulci-film-with-a-budget Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, now out on DVD, is a pretty awful movie in its own right. It certainly would have had even less of a chance of making money at the box office than Harlin’s dud, which to some degree validates Morgan Creek’s decision to roll the dice and remake the film, even if it didn’t pay off.

In fairness we should probably mention that the DVD version of Dominion doesn't appear to be a completely finished film. There is evidence that a couple of scenes weren't shot, the musical score is sparse, and there are many subpar special effects.

The central problem with Dominion is the most obvious reason it would have crashed at the box office: Dominion really isn’t a horror movie. It appears this was a deliberate decision, but it still begs the question, if you didn’t want to make a horror movie why are you making a prequel to The Exorcist in the first place? Yes, the original film addressed some questions of good and evil, but it was Linda Blair spewing pea soup that made an impression on audiences. For all its vaunted “seriousness,” the moral discussions in Dominion don’t get much beyond characters wondering why bad things happen to good people. The movie is an exercise is boredom, and what happens when filmmakers take their material too seriously.

"This is the largest known
representation of a human
breast known in the ancient world."
The film opens with a scene that was a big reveal in Harlin’s film. Lankester Merrin is forced by Nazis retreating across Belgium to participate in a war crime. A few years later Merrin is in Africa, working as an archaeologist. (As a reveal it was pretty lame, but because the WWII scene came first, it gave the impression, probably unintentional, that Merrin is in Africa to hide from war crime charges.) The local British colonial government has discovered a buried church. Merrin and the other archaeologists investigate and find that the church was buried before it was ever used, and where most churches have imagery that draws the eye to Heaven, this church features imagery that points toward the ground. Merrin finds a vault beneath the church that was apparently used for human sacrifice.

To establish something strange is going on now that the church has been uncovered, the greatest scene in the movie occurs. Merrin and some of the other workers are traveling from the church when they spot a herd of cows by the side of the road. Their guide explains:

Hyena — it's what's for dinner.
"The hyenas must have attacked the cattle. But the cattle killed them, then ate them. Now they die of it."

You read that right, carnivorous cows. Wasn't that one of the signs of the apocalypse according to Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984)?

Perhaps the one thing Dominion has in common with a real horror film is that people just can’t leave well enough alone. Two British soldiers are assigned to guard the church overnight from any incursions by the native tribes who provided the labor at the dig. The soldiers, of course, decide to loot the church, and the next morning their mutilated bodies are found. The head of British forces (Julian Wadham, who plays the same part in Exorcist: The Beginning) assumes the natives are responsible, leading to heightened tensions.

Meanwhile, Merrin and some of the other mission workers, namely the teacher Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) and medic Rachel Lenso (Clara Bellar, an actor one letter away from selling hamburgers), have taken in a crippled, semi-feral child Cheche (Billy Crawford). After the church is opened Cheche shows miraculous powers of healing as he recovers from surgery quickly. Even his lame arm spontaneously heals, but there are other omens that aren’t quite so positive. The native tribe’s chief’s son is born covered in maggots (a scene that Harlin used in his version), and most of the native children attending the mission school are killed by a disgruntled tribesman.

Jim Carrey? Now that's evil!
After much alleged building of tension, Cheche is revealed to be possessed and takes up residence in the vault under the church, finally allowing for the exorcism smackdown we’ve been waiting for the whole movie. What happens? Not much. Cheche lounges around like he's home watching the game while spouting things like, "You hate God. God gives you guilt" at Merrin.

Unable to come up with a rejoinder, Merrin flees back to his bedroom, prays to God for 15 seconds, and breaks out his handy Lil' Pontiff's First Exorcism Kit. Descending back into the vault Merrin has a final slow-motion fight with Cheche, luckily silencing the demon-possessed boy before he utters too many more lines like "You're a weak vessel. A weak vessel leaks."

As if the boring filmmaking weren't enough of an insult, Dominion doesn't even do a good job at being a prequel to The Exorcist. In the original film we found out two things about Merrin's earlier life: First, while on a mission in Africa, he exorcised the Pazuzu from a boy named Joseph. Secondly, he had a vision of an idol of Pazuzu while on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Dominion ignores both of these facts. Though a boy named Joseph appears in the movie, he's never possessed. At least Exorcist: The Beginning had the sense to set up a situation that explained why people would have believed Joseph was possessed, even it did pull a lame twist at the end. The name Pazuzu is also never used in Dominion, and the idol we see in the vault is recognizable as that Sumerian demon only if you're familiar with Akkadian mythology. Why Dominion decided to muddle this point when it is a such a plot point in The Exorcist is a mystery.

So both Paul Shrader and Renny Harlin made bad movies based on the same plot. Is there any more evidence needed that the Devil is real?

Review date: 11/23/2005

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