As I mentioned in my review of the original Exorcist, HERE, I had never gotten around to seeing the second prequel that was made and went straight to video. That's all changed now, because I found a dirt cheap copy of it on DVD, and have already watched it a good three times, maybe four. Though it didn't see a release until 2005, the director, Paul Schrader, was approached to tackle the project in 2001. From the jump, I respected this picture more than the dreadful Renny Harlin movie, Exorcist: The Beginning, because unlike Harlin, Schrader didn't try and mock or imitate the original Friedkin movie in any way. In fact, Schrader said, "the feeling was [that] you had to get away from the Friedkin Exorcist, because it was such a classic. And one of the ways to do that was to switch the possessed person from a girl to a boy, but even more importantly, to switch the very nature of a possession". It's no secret that a pet peeve of mine is when directors try to make prequels to outdo an original, rather than just let it flow naturally and be its own movie. So, my hat's off to Paul Schrader for both being respectful of the 1973 Exorcist, and for making a stand alone effort. The story is more about Father Merrin's journey than trying to be a horror flick.
The story of this one starts in Holland (which was actually filmed in Rome), in 1944, where Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård, who also played Merrin in Renny Harlin's film) is forced by Nazi's to chose 10 innocent victims to be gunned down in cold blood. Director, Paul Schrader was pleased to be working with Skarsgård, and said that he "thinks the world of him as an actor". Anyway, this incident breaks the priest emotionally and physically, so he leaves his faith behind to become an archaeologist. While excavating in the Turkana region of British Kenya, he uncovers a 5th century church, in which the stones look new and aren't weathered. What's even more suspicious is the fact that the church was apparently buried after it was built. While uncovering the architectural find, Merrin sees a mysterious and deformed young man named Cheche (Billy Crawford) who has a (cgi) weak and feeble right leg. Villagers say that Cheche is "cursed", but the doctors think all he needs is treatment. I was dumbfounded to hear that that Billy Crawford is actually a famous disco singer in France, looks nothing like Cheche in person, and that he was cast for Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist before the very director. Well, Merrin finds Cheche passed out in the rain shortly after their first encounter, and takes him to get medical aid. The doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar) believes she can fix Cheche's leg, and wants to operate. Meanwhile, Merrin takes Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) into the recently uncovered and discovered church. Upon entering, they notice that the statues in the place of worship are posed as if they're holding something down. Artist David Packard actually designed the Mosaics before he had to leave to do Russell Crowe's wedding. And, as it turns out, the basement is a temple to praise Satan. The church was actually built on top of it, which explains why it was buried. They even say that "they [the builders] used St. Michael to emphasize [that] the old Gods had no power before 'The One'". They duo also come to understand that people were sacrificed in the basement/Satanic church. The Christian church built atop the disgraceful bottom layer is dedicated to St. Michael, the angel that defeated Lucifer. However, upon the doors just being opened, Cheche (in his hospital bed) somehow senses it, as do the cattle, who attack and eat threatening hyenas. As it turns out, the evil stored within the walls is now out and effecting everyone in the village one way or another. One of the ways you can obviously tell something is awry in the area is that a woman in the local tribe gives birth to a dead baby covered in maggots! Pretty traumatizing stuff, right? Then, to top it all off, two British Soldiers attempt to steal some jewels from the church, only to be found murdered the next morning. One soldier is beheaded, and the other was hung like an upside down cross. Major Granville (Julian Wadham) blames the local tribe and their primal fashion for the deaths of his soldiers, but tribe members rebuttal and say that one of the soldiers killed the other before himself. Then, we find out that Cheche is healing faster than thought possible. It's as though he's getting better while everything and everyone around him is decaying to some array. Then, Granville gathers some tribe members and shoots one (a female) in the head before being detained and deemed "mad". Soon after, comes easily one of the most powerful moments in the story, when one of the tribesmen kills several innocent children in school because he, "had to kill them to stop the Christian evil from spreading". But, we start getting to the really juicy stuff when Father Francis puts a cross on Cheche's forehead and it not only burns him, but Cheche opens his eyes to reveal that they're glowing red (which strongly reminded me of the vampire eyes in Innocent Blood). Cheche also speaks English (in which he supposedly knows none). After explaining the event to Merrin, nothing gets solved because without Merrin's faith, he doesn't believe in such things happening and relies more on random coincidence. It's a rather volatile scene between Merrin and Francis, as even Paul Schrader explained to the actors on set "give me two angry actors in a kitchen", instead of an action scene. And (to make things worse), Granville shoots himself with a parting message to Merrin; "no way out". Sergeant Major (Ralph Brown) explains that it was extremely uncharacteristic of Granville to have killed the tribe woman, and says "something got into him." Meanwhile, Father Francis takes Cheche to the church in hopes of saving him, but instead only awakens the evil of the demon in him. The next time we see Father Francis is when Merrin finds him tied up like a crucifix, and he's shot full of arrows. This of course leads to (drum roll please) Merrin being left responsible to carry out Cheche's exorcism! Merrin briefly confronts the demon before he goes to pray, the scene that the whole film builds up to and Paul Schrader explained its importance by saying "you can't show his [Merrin's] journey without him dropping to his knees and asking God for strength to continue". We then see Merrin put his priest wardrobe on again, and in the temple, he confronts Cheche who's now taken over by the demon. We see the "demon perfected" (as Paul Schrader described) as he looks almost nothing like Cheche anymore. He's not deformed, but he's bald, has an elongated forehead, and is soft spoken with ruby eyes. Like all possession flicks, the antagonist gets inside of the protagonists head. In this case, Merrin is taken back to the year of 1944 and given the option to handle the situation with the Jews being murdered differently. However, he confronts his demons (no pun intended) and only becomes stronger because he overcomes his cowardice. He faces the demon, prevails, and expels it from Cheche, causing a hyena to now be it's animalistic host. All this happens just in time to stop a war between the British soldiers and the tribesmen, and Rachel from killing herself. Merrin is told, "the demon is your enemy now. He will pursue you", which obviously "sets up Merrin's future as an exorcist" (as expained by Schrader). Merrin leaves Rachel (and their possible love interest) behind in order to go on as a man of the cloth (again). With Rachel, Cheche stays and agrees to be her helper. The screen goes bright white to leave audiences with hope, and to go out on a positive note. Oh, and for those who don't know, the last 20 minutes of the film is scored by metal band, Dog Fashion Disco, who Paul Schrader helped get a record deal.
Though not filled with very many scares, the story of Dominion is full of thick and rich storytelling. A lot happens in just under two hours, and to say it's "Merrin's journey" is to put it correctly. Rather than have the possessed be a female with cuts on her face like Renny Harlin's prequel, Schrader went a totally different path with it, and I think that's why it's superior to Harlin's interpretation. This can be a horror film depending on which ways you look at it, because some horrific stuff definitely happens, but ultimately it's a drama. It's the story and build up to what comes next in The Exorcist. Also, this isn't a prequel that looks fresh and new compared to the old one. Granted, it's more recently shot, but it totally looks dated, and fits in with the story of Captain Howdy damn near seamlessly. Nothing bothers me more than when a prequel looks all high-tech and advanced in comparison to a movie that's supposed to come after it (see Prometheus and Alien to catch my drift). I'm very pleased that there's nothing in Dominion to hint that it was shot at a later date than the original other than the crispness of the picture. It's also incredibly well acted, and the story is a gut-puncher. It's refreshing to see a new take on a classic that doesn't alter it, but instead honors it and gives it a tip of the hat. Schrader has been in the game a while now, and I commend him on being genius enough to not try and make it scarier than The Exorcist. It's something that has been attempted countless times, and yet it's never been successfully achieved by anyone to date (including Harlin). So rather than try and match or outdo an outstanding classic, he focused on building up the story of a broken hero. Originality always gets a nod from me, and if there's one thing that Dominion is, it's a movie that stands strongly on its own beside its predecessor. Nobody's annoyingly stupid and making bad decisions, instead everybody is and acts intelligent, which makes the whole story believable and worthy of investing in.
Now, although I do praise Dominion for being a drama and not trying to be scarier than The Exorcist, I can't help but be disappointed in the complete lack of thrills and scares distributed. I found nothing threatening or frightening about it. In fact, it's so not scary and thrilling that it gets downright boring at parts and drags on. As I mentioned before, I watched it about three or four times, but upon my first viewing I was certain that there was going to be some sort of scare or something that was worthy of the build up and waiting, only to be left empty handed. It wasn't until my second viewing that I took it in and appreciated it for it's separation of the other films in the series. But still, I wasn't creeped out or scared in the least bit. I think the horror aspect was a little too subtle and dormant. Hell, there's not so much as a successfully scary sound effect to be found in Dominion. I can't help but think that with The Exorcist being in the title that there should be some sort of terror within. So, when it comes to scares, I'd give it to Renny Harlin's version any day (even if that's all his movie has to offer).
Having grown up in a Christian household, and still practicing Christianity today in my adulthood, possession has and (probably) always will scare me. That being said, Dominion is the first and only movie about exorcism that I like that isn't scary. Whenever I watch movies on the topic, I expect to be scared or at the very least feel some sort of unease, and when I don't, I hate the movie and think it's pointless. But, due to the compelling story and the well-written characters, I can't help but make Dominion an exception to that rule. It's not a perfect film, I wouldn't even consider it a horror film, but it's a good character story that leads right into Friedkin's 1973 all-time classic. This is the only movie in the series that I like outside of the first and third. I would positively recommend this, but, I can understand why some won't (don't) like it. It's an acquired taste, and if you go in expecting to be blown away, it's going to fail your expectations. However, in comparison to the Renny Harlin prequel, and say Exorcist II: The Heretic, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
BEST SCENE: I like when the demon is taunting Merrin in the unholy temple by creeping past him and up behind him with supernatural movement.
BEST QUOTE: There's a lot of good quotes to be mentioned, but I think the one that had the most impact on me watching it was Father Francis when he said, "Satan is real", to Merrin.