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With: Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford, Ralph Brown
Written by: Caleb Carr, William Wisher Jr.
Directed by: Paul Schrader
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 117
Date: 17/03/2005

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist on DVD

Everyone knows by now that Warner Brothers was unhappy with Paul Schrader's version of Exorcist IV and ordered a series of re-shoots. Schrader refused, so the studio hired Renny Harlin for the job, which is roughly the equivalent of hiring the Spice Girls to finish a Rolling Stones album. Unlike most people, I found plenty to like in Harlin's version, despite its tendency to veer into hokum. I also felt comfortable enough to trumpet Schrader's version as the superior one, sight unseen.

Perhaps some legends should remain so. I'm embarrassed and ashamed to report how disappointing the just-released original version, now titled Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist, is. It definitely avoids the blatant stupidity of Harlin's version, but it also fails to reach the level of that film's good points. It's like a long, tepid journey through roughly the same story.

Stellan Skarsgard still plays the lead role, a younger Father Merrin, the same character who years later, exorcises little Regan in William Friedkin's original The Exorcist. And the key scene is still here: Merrin being forced by Nazis during WWII to choose which of his parishioners shall die.

Schrader's film has Gabriel Mann in the role of the younger priest and Clara Bellar as the cute doctor. (Their roles were re-cast with James D'arcy and Elizabeth Scorupo in the Harlin version.) Merrin no longer drinks and he's no longer hired by shady characters to come to Kenya to look at the buried church. The church is no longer scary, even if it gets the same point across. And the insane, previous archeologist is now gone.

Instead, Dominion focuses almost entirely on Merrin's struggle with faith. Billy Crawford plays a physically deformed native boy, Cheche. The doctor, Rachel (Bellar), fixes his wounds and re-sets his damaged leg, and his rapid, miraculous healing gives Father Francis (Mann) cause for rejoicing. He tries to baptize the boy, but it's too late: he's possessed! Father Merrin must don his robe again and perform his first exorcism.

As hinted during the battle with Warner Brothers, Schrader's version is not very scary, but it also takes a long time to make certain points. When Merrin finally faces off with the demon, Schrader plays it as a straightforward conversation about faith with very little of visual interest. Cheche teleports around the room with his eyes aglow, but Schrader delivers nothing quite as interesting as the twisting head or the pea soup.

Oddly, by devoting more time to Merrin's inner struggle, Schrader somehow makes it less weighty. It now feels like a long stubborn streak followed by a sudden, snap decision. Whereas in Harlin's version, the extra subplots gave Merrin more to do, more to think about and more options to weigh.

I like both versions of Exorcist IV about the same, and about equal to John Boorman's interesting failure Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). It's too bad that a clever editor couldn't have taken the best bits from both films and put them together into a co-directed, successful whole.

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