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Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

When director Paul Schrader screened this prequel to the 1973 horror classic for Warner Brothers brass, the studio fired him and hired action hack Renny Harlin to reshoot the story with a revised script. Harlin's effort, released theatrically in 2004 as Exorcist: The Beginning, was so godawful it made John Boorman's bizarrely silly 1978 Exorcist II: the Heretic look like a serious follow-up to William Friedkin's enduring original. Harlin's dumb, hyperactive disaster brought the studio's decision to fire the more cerebral Schrader into question, and thus, with nothing to lose, Warner began to screen Schrader's completed original prequel at film festivals, eventually resulting in this DVD release. While Warner's reverse in deference to the disgraced Schrader might seem initially like humble good sportsmanship, it's more likely an attempt to rake in a few extra dollars while vindicating their decision to go a different way. Schrader's Exorcist prequel is by no means the disaster Harlin's turned out to be, but it nonetheless fails, largely due to Schrader's misguided overall conception. Stellan Skarsgard stars as Lankester Merrin, a fallen Dutch priest tormented by evils he was forced to commit by Nazis during World War II. Now an archeologist, Merrin is coerced into overseeing a mysterious dig near a remote British military outpost in Kenya, where an ornate fifth century church appears to have been erected and immediately, purposefully buried. An evil power emanating from beneath the church is awakened by the site's exploration, which begins to manifest itself physically by possessing a gimpy native outcast (Billy Crawford) and exacerbating tensions between the racist soldiers and a local tribe wary of Christianity.

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Despite its famous special effects, the original Exorcist was skillfully introverted, quietly probing the dark secrets of the soul behind a docudrama-like approach. Schrader, known for his intimate, often explosive previous work — including Light Sleeper, Mishima, and Auto Focus, as well as screenplays for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ — eschews his well-developed sense for dramatic tension for a more detached, theatrical approach, strangely mistaking the movie's exotic period setting as a requirement that he stylistically mimic films contemporary with that very period. Not only is this aesthetic at odds with the very internal narrative focus — Merrin's post-war crisis of faith and his transition toward becoming an expert exorcist — but it also jars with Schrader's particular gift for gritty and personal explorations of suppressed pain. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro overlights and overframes every shot, giving the film an epic look that undermines its content by overlooking the small intimacies that would give power to later horrors that instead flail limply for wanting effect. The casting of Skarsgard is inspired, but the rest of the cast is terrible, either overacting weakly sketched one-dimensional characters (like Gabriel Mann's faithful Father Francis and Ralph Brown's militant Sergeant Major) or underacting through sheer lack of noticeable talent (Clara Bellar is so wooden as Rachel, the local doctor, that a little jolt of demonic possession may be her only hope for attaining a human-like demeanor). The screenplay, by novelist Caleb Carr and William Wisher, Jr., is not altogether uninspired as a first draft, but it neglects to create an emotional hook for the story, stripping the stakes from the too-easy (and sort of silly) demon-battling climax, and it's far too explicit in examining Merrin's inner turmoil, leaving Skarsgard little to do but act pensive. While it's not the worst film in the series (Harlin's abomination takes that title in style), neither is it as interestingly bad as the first two sequels, and it's far from anywhere near Schrader's potential. It easy to understand why studio bosses were left scratching their heads. Warner Home Video presents Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Schrader's commentary provides occasional insights, but disappointingly he never digs into the juicy production controversies. Also on board are six (dull) deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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