Sunday, October 2, 2011

October 1st: Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (2005)

In 1944 Holland, Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is forced by sadistic Nazi commander Kessel (Antoine Kamerling) to handpick 10 members of his congregation for Nazi execution. Spiritually broken by the event, Merrin renounces his faith in God and becomes an archaeologist. Three years later, Merrin is sent by Major Granville (Julian Wadham) of the British Armed Forces to lead an archaeological dig in Kenya. Working alongside the naive Father William Francis (Gabirel Mann) and Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar), a holocaust survivor/nurse, Merrin discovers an ancient church buried underground.

Meanwhile, Lesno and Merrin are trying to reach Cheche (Billy Crawford), a local boy who is hated and feared due to his physical deformities. After performing reconstructive surgery on Cheche's twisted leg, Lesno and Merrin are stunned to find the boy's deformities healing on their own. Father Francis comes to believe the boy is possessed by a demon and must be exorcised. Merrin dismisses the young priest's claims, but with mass chaos spreading across the area for unknown reasons, with cattle eating hyena and the docile British soldiers becoming more violent, it becomes clear to Merrin that the church contained the spirit of a demon and that demon is now in Cheche. With tensions brewing between the British and the African elders threatening to become a full-blown war and Lesno and Francis' lives at risk, Merrin finds that he has no choice but to rediscover his faith and confront the demon.
Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist is a fascinating film, but the story behind its production outweighs it. In 2000, Morgan Creek and Warner Bros. re-released William Friedkin's The Exorcist, the freaky horror classic from 1973, to an impressive $39 million take at the box office. Deciding that the time was right to bring the series back, Morgan Creek hired John Frankenheimer of The Manchurian Candidate to direct and Oscar nominee Liam Neeson to portray Father Merrin in a prequel detailing Merrin's first encounter with the evil that would possess Regan MacNeil in Friedkin's film.

With Frankenheimer leaving the project due to health concerns (he passed away a month later) and Neeson leaving shortly afterwards, the studio turned to Paul Schrader, the writer of Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, to direct. With a script by novelist Caleb Carr and Terminator 2 screenwriter William Wisher and a cast led by Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann and Clara Bellar, Schrader put together a thematic tale of lost faith and redemption.
When Dominion was screened for Morgan Creek, the studio was unsatisfied with the film's lack of gore and jump scares, not to mention put off by politically incorrect moments of violence, including a brutal massacre in a school. Rather than ordering reshoots, Morgan Creek fired Schrader and brought in schlockmeister Renny Harlin, of Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Die Hard 2 fame, and screenwriter Alexi Hawley, a future writer on Castle, to deliver the film they wanted. Following the failure of Exorcist: The Beginning, Morgan Creek gave Schrader $35,000 to finish his version and released in on May 20th, 2005, one day after the release of another prequel, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith. Suffice it to say, both films bombed, grossing $42,042,179 on a combined $80,000,000 budget, and went into obscurity.
Did Dominion deserve the treatment it got at the hands of Morgan Creek? Absolutely not; Schrader's film is classy and intelligent, the kind of horror film that horror fans don't see anymore. In line with Schrader's previous works, the power of Dominion lies in a lead character struggling with inner guilt and turmoil. In Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle contemplates political assassination and pre-meditated murder out of his disgust for society's crimes. In Raging Bull, DeNiro's Jake LaMotta is a successful boxer to society, but in private unleashes his anger and rage on his abused wife and well-meaning brother. In Dominion, Stellan Skarsgard's Father Merrin wants to bring peace to Cheche and the locals, but is torn inside by his guilt over his actions in Holland and his decision to abandon God. It's a fascinating character type and, for those familiar with the original Exorcist know, it nicely calls back to Jason Miller's Father Damien Karras, who listens to others confess their guilt and sins despite feeling that he is unfit to be a priest. Kudos to Schrader, Wisher and Carr for making Merrin's story so compelling and touching.
More importantly, it helps that Schrader has found the perfect actor for Merrin in Stellan Skarsgard. Though a critical darling in foreign films, Skarsgard's Hollywood career is sketchy; most of his roles have been supporting to minor roles, very few of which have left much of an impression. Finally given the chance to be the lead, Skarsgard proves the critics were right to praise him. His interpretation of Merrin is astonishing; he perfectly conveys the guilt and conflict the character feels, but also presents Merrin as a powerful presence, with just enough nods to Max Von Sydow's 1973 iteration to make Merrin feel like the same character that appeared in Friedkin's film.
 In addition to Skarsgard, the cast includes powerful performances by Gabriel Mann (The Bourne Identity) and Clara Bellar, whose roles as a priest and a holocaust survivor bring out the guilt in Merrin, but also inspire him to return to the cloth by the end of the film. With the exception of Skarsgard, however, the best performance in the film belongs to Billy Crawford, whose transformation from innocent cripple to the vessel of ultimate evil captures an intensity and awe rarely seen in modern horror films. He's genuinely sympathetic and truly frightening at the same time.
Unfortunately, Dominion doesn't quite reach the level of horror nirvana it should have. The CGI effects, particularly the hyenas and locusts, are inexcusably bad. For a late '80s, early '90s horror film it would've been acceptable; for a film in the 21st century, there is no excuse. The effects look particularly bad in the climax, with the bright lights shining over Kenya coming off as more laughable than awe-inspiring. Furthermore, there are notable plot holes. For one, the script never says how the church got to Kenya. It is made clear throughout the movie that Christianity was not in Kenya during the 5th century, which was when the church was built. How did the church get there without anyone knowing? How did the demon get there? These are important questions that no one has an answer to.
In addition to these holes, it could also be questioned as to why Cheche's body heals when the demon possesses him. In The Exorcist, Regan's body practically decomposed; the skin became pale blue and lacerations appeared all over her face. This leads to a bigger question; is the demon Merrin fights in 1947 the same demon he fights in 1973? The demon's powers and effects seem completely different from what Pazuzu was capable of. The film's 1947 setting is also inconsistent with the continuity of the series. In The Exorcist, Father Tom clearly states that Merrin's first encounter with the demon happened 10-12 years prior to 1973 and that the exorcism took days, nearly killing Merrin in the process. Furthermore, the notoriously bad Exorcist II: The Heretic shows that Merrin exorcised the demon from a young village boy named Kokumo. Are we supposed to believe that Merrin fought the demon after Cheche, but before Regan? Why did it take a spiritually weakened Merrin a few minutes to exorcise Cheche, but it took hours for a spiritually powerful Merrin, with Father Karras at his side, to battle Regan to a standstill? Why not show Father Francis' death? These are questions that at the very least should have a possible answer, but none of them are explained.
It's also worth mentioning two scenes that might have been, in part, responsible for the film initially being shelved; the opening scene in 1944 Holland, where Merrin is forced to participate in Nazi executions of his own flock, and the scene of an African warrior killing Father Francis' students, all children, in cold blood to purge them of Christian influence. Personally, I am rarely offended by a movie. It's a film, not real life, and I can put my personal views aside to let the film tell me its story. That being said, I was quite taken aback by both of these scenes. While you don't see the murders happen onscreen, the impact is jarring and unexpected. Seeing these sequences, I can understand Morgan Creek's reluctance to release this film. Both scenes, the school scene in particular, would've undoubtedly caught some controversy.
All in all, these complaints are largely minor considering the overall quality of the film. It's also worth mentioning the cinematography; Vittorio Storaro, the DP of Apocalypse Now, 1900, Last Tango In Paris, and The Last Emperor, gives Dominion a gorgeous, authentic look. A lot of films set in the past try to be authentic, but often look just as modern as a film taking place in the present, but Storaro knows how to capture time. Other than the piss-poor CGI, the film feels timeless in its look and that's as much a compliment to Storaro as it is to Schrader, who, having clearly learned from Scorcese, shows a master's sense of character development and storytelling.
What's particularly impressive about Dominion is how well it holds up in comparison to Friedkin's film. It's an effective, mostly satisfying companion piece, even if it doesn't have split pea soup and spinning heads. Dominion isn't The Exorcist; the original is a horror classic that has only rarely been equaled or surpassed in the 38 years since its release. That being said, Schrader's film is vastly better than the series' previous installments, John Boorman's bugnuts Exorcist II: The Heretic and William Peter Blatty's talky Exorcist III. Furthermore, Renny Harlin's film, abysmal in its own right, only looks worse in comparison. Even taking the controversial moments of violence into account, it's head-scratching as to why Morgan Creek thought this was unreleasable, yet willingly sunk $50,000,000 into a shallow remake that lacks all of the tension, dread and intellect of Schrader's film. While the studio should be commended for allowing Schrader to finish the film and release it, they should've given it a chance to be seen. Putting it in limited release against Revenge of The Sith only proves Morgan Creek was unwilling to admit they made a huge mistake with both films.
I give Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist 4 out of 5 Stars. It lacks the intense scares and shocks of The Exorcist, but wisely avoids the pitfalls made by Boorman, Blatty and Harlin to deliver an intelligent, thoughtful tale that sports gorgeous cinematography, classy performances and multilayered themes and concepts that modern horror films usually ignore. Looking at The Exorcist franchise as a whole, the original film stands on its own and doesn't need the baggage brought up by any of these four continuations. However, if you want more, Dominion stands out as the only continuation worthy of the Exorcist title.

NEXT UP: October 2nd: Slaughter High (1986)

No comments:

Post a Comment