It’s not often that two radically different versions of the same concept come out, much less so close together, and both are almost entirely forgotten about now.
Fearing an imminent flop with Paul Shrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Warner Bros. re-edited and re-shot a large chunk of the film under director Renny Harlin of Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Deep Blue Sea, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master fame.
Not unlike what they’d do a little over a decade later with handing the reigns of Justice League over to Joss Whedon from Zack Snyder, and in both cases the original vision of the filmmaker eventually saw the light of day, thankfully.
It’s so strange to look at these movies almost twenty years later because they feel almost like the same idea just from a parallel universe as both follow a younger Father Merrin as he’s lost faith and returned to archaeology but both take radically different approaches to his first encounter with demonic evil despite sharing a same framework script and many of the same actors, I think it’s important to analyze where one fails and another succeeds as well as why Warner Bros. would feel uncomfortable with a movie like Dominion.
Movie 1: The Exorcist: Beginnings (2004)
As this was given a wide release first, this will be the one we look at first, despite it being developed from elements of the latter. I want to like the idea of this, but it’s just so, blasé in terms of an Exorcist movie, except now with all the worst hallmarks of twenty-first-century horror.
For this point in time, with this character, Merrin is way too warm, he’s supposed to be a cynic and pulled away from the church at this point, but here he’s making quips and womanizing the innkeeper, don’t get me wrong, he’s still an alcoholic and dejected, but that’s severely downplayed, same with an element as to WHY he left the church in the first place which is haphazardly edited in this version.
However, I have heard that this encounter of his with the Nazis was not just important, but it was the opening of Dominion. At one point in the film, they just abandon the grounded nature the series is known for in two ways, in a visual sense, and from a story standpoint.
In terms of visuals, at one point the very clearly possessed child summons hyenas, with some of the worst CGI I’ve seen in a motion picture in a while, and especially for the year that Spider-Man 2, Hellboy, and I, Robot all released, and those movies all generally hold up visually, this is in my opinion, an issue of mismanagement as if planned for, CGI integrated into a real environment can look breathtaking, but this comes off as sloppy more than anything.
Back to the topic at hand, when the film narratively jumps the shark is when they reveal that this mysterious church formed before Christianity entered the region was entirely because people built a church around where actual Lucifer fell from Heaven which is just, so needlessly melodramatic.
It’s a fine movie, but an awful entry to the series, from playing the hits of creepy kids, to a possessed woman, to gross-out imagery, and then to the over-reliance on jump-scares and the aforementioned tacky CGI which appeared more than that one moment, it just especially stood out like a sore thumb at that point.
They don’t do much new with this, it’s too safe for its own good, except when it’s visually gross or completely insane, it reminds me of a better put-together The Heretic in that regard, on that note, this is a 3/10.
Movie 2: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
I’ll say this, right out the gate, this felt like it inhabited the same world of 1973’s The Exorcist infinitely more than Exorcist: The Beginning could ever hope to. For starters, the movie is a lot more quieter and focused on the characters and at that with a clear and very present focus on the evils of man, and how the evils of hell exasperate those natural problems we possess.
I also really appreciate Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin more in this version as here you really feel this tortured and lost soul trying to find his place in a cruel and uncaring world and what that means with a God that supposedly loves above all else.
Not everything works, I’ll say I feel that a lot of the “people being influenced by the demon” was a little too much too fast. It’s obvious what it’s going for but it feels like not one of these characters is stopping for a second and thinking that something is wrong with this.
But I did appreciate that it led to a nice parallel with Merrin’s own past, there were also yet again really goofy CGI animals in many of these scenes. Looking at this now, I can see why WB would be worried about giving a movie like this a wide release, compared to 1973 when The Exorcist was released, it was a much different cinematic landscape for horror movies.
You had stuff like Freddy vs Jason and The Ring for more mass-market stuff and then at the same time more outlandish “torture” genre got a following with The Human Centipede, Hostel, and Saw, and Dominion doesn’t fall into either of those two niches.
So they sacrificed artistic integrity to mould and reshape this movie like clay to make it more approachable and less challenging, which is a true shame because this is at the very least interesting and worthy of discussion.
However at the same time, I can’t fully disagree with the critics as no character short of Merrin himself is given much weight or importance, and the demon in this version, probably still Pazuzu, has a remarkably goofy design. It’s probably the one movie out of the two that had the most genuine potential and it still somehow fell flat and that’s a real shame, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is a 5/10.
Regardless of what I thought of the first three movies, this was a sadly weak batch of precursor stories that didn’t leave anywhere close to the desired impact. And then there was one, which in typical fashion is the reason why I began this journey of mine. These movies have simultaneously been exactly what I expected and an entirely new strand of the unknown, and I’m so curious where Believer will take that streak next time.