Here's the story of "Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist". It's a long and complicated one. Somewhere between 2004 and 2005, production had begun on a prequel to "The Exorcist" that would talk about the backstory of Father Merrin, portrayed by Max Von Sydow in the original film. Initially, John Frankenheimer was attached, but his health problems and eventual death put another man in the director's chair: Paul Schrader. He had basically made his movie, and then the studio - Morgan Creek Productions - didn't think the film that had been made would be a financial success for the company. Therefore, they hired another director - Renny Harlin - to rework the entire film; his version was called "Exorcist: The Beginning".
Now, I've seen that film, and it's bad; real fucking bad. It has used similar sets (and a few of the same actors) from Schrader's film, but it was just significantly worse all around. I guess the studio realized that too, and therefore felt the desire to give Schrader enough money to complete his movie. The stories are essentially the same, although Schrader seems to be a more capable filmmaker than Harlin. His film actually has some structure and general pacing to it, although it's not necessarily good pacing at the end of the day, and the cinematography is also an area in which he shows a lot of improvement over the previous work. "Dominion" at least has the advantage of feeling more cinematic than its predecessor.
Father Merrin (played by Stellan Skarsgard in both versions) is the troubled priest from "The Exorcist" that gave his life in the process of assisting in the exorcism of young, possessed Regan MacNeil. But before the incident, there was another encounter that he had with pure evil from a plane of existence beyond ours; in other words, quite possibly Hell. "Dominion" sees Merrin in East Africa, having left the church for a while after a traumatic event during World War II that he endured in Holland. He now devotes his life to an archeological dig; to unearth a long-lost church. He assembles a team of archeologists and a priest (Gabriel Mann) to aid him in all areas during the excavation. However, he digs up more than he bargained for when it becomes clear that evil, demonic forces have plagued the village. Merrin must choose between confronting his faith or walking away from the situation.
I know there's a good story to be told here. For the record, Schrader is obviously more devoted to telling it skillfully than Harlin ever was. Nevertheless, it's an affair that is unfortunately far too slow-moving and uninvolving to work. There are brilliant scenes which attempt to bring us into Merrin's emotionally vulnerable self-conscious, but it's not easy buying the film when everything else is too contrived. On top of that, there are bad special effects - although nothing that matches the badness of the hyena scene in "The Beginning", although the silly CGI hyenas still exist here nonetheless - and some of the acting is wooden at best, although I think Skarsgard is good in this role.
"Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist" is basically a bad movie helped by an overwhelming sense of sincerity. Underneath it all, I can't say it's well-made and I definitely wasn't engaged, but it regards its supernatural and religious themes in utter seriousness, which is more than I can say for most films that involve demons and exorcisms. Also, I appreciate that it's better than "The Beginning", if only marginally; but whatever. Both versions of this story are forgettable and not particularly well-told; but if you're going to watch one of them, you'd better make it this one. At least, in spite of its failures (a lot of them very big and hard to get by), "Dominion" is bearable. But it still doesn't do William Peter Blatty's novel legacy much justice; although he did go on record saying that he prefers this to "The Beginning". But who the hell wouldn't?
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