Prequel to The Exorcist

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford
Director:  Paul Schrader
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Stills Gallery
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  October 25, 2005

"Are you praying?  To God?  God isn't here today."

Film ***

It became a tale of two movies.  When Warner Bros. decided to greenlight a prequel to The Exorcist, the first man to take a shot at it was director and famed Martin Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader.  He cast Stellan Skarsgard in the role of the young Father Lankester Merrin, and his movie Dominion spun a tale about how the priest lost and regained his faith in the face of a terrifying evil.

But the powers that be rejected the movie, deciding it was too cerebral in its approach and didn't pack enough scare power.  Enter Renny Harlin, noted action director, to make a separate version.  His movie Exorcist: The Beginning also starred Stellan Skarsgard, and went for the opposite approach:  it delivered scares and effects, but had no brainpower, actually going so far as to claim a Christian church was built in 5 AD.  I guess you'd have to call it the Church of Jesus the Toddler.

We've seen the Harlin film, now fans at last get a chance to see Paul Schrader's take.  In viewing Dominion, I could actually see both sides of the argument.  I was impressed that the film was smart and didn't play down to its audience, and that it took its theology seriously, treating the struggle between good and evil as a very real and very consequential battle.  But as a horror fan, I have to be honest and admit the studio heads were right about one thing:  the picture doesn't scare.

The back story of Father Merrin remains the same:  during the Nazi occupation of Holland, a German officer forces the priest to pick ten Jews out of a crowd to be shot, otherwise, all of them would be.  Merrin spends the next years unable to recover from the blow to his faith.

He ends up in an archeological dig in British East Africa, alongside a stalwart young priest named Father Francis (Mann).  What they find is extraordinary:  an ancient Christian church that seems to have been built and deliberately buried.  The statues and artwork inside depict St. Michael the Archangel and his heavenly battle against Lucifer and his followers.  Everything in the church looks downward instead of up, almost as if they were trying to keep something from coming up...

The dig takes place during a growing unrest between the natives and the British army.  Some of the natives have embraced Christianity, others don't trust it...it doesn't help that Merrin is now a man caught in the middle.  When a pair of soldiers attempt to rob the church and end up murdered in biblical ways, Merrin and Francis must get to the bottom of the mystery before an all out war breaks out.

At the same time, a crippled native boy called Cheche (Crawford) seems to be getting miraculously better as the exploration goes further.  Is it the power of God, as Francis believes?  Or is something from the other side taking hold of the boy?

Evil in this film is not a haunted house or an ax wielding murderer, but rather, a dark presence that consumes the human heart and soul, turning man against man and man against God.  It's hard for someone who experienced what Father Merrin did to accept the idea that God allows evil to exist...yet in his case, facing it is ultimately what restores him.

Skarsgard is one of my favorite actors, and the story of how Merrin loses and regains his faith is wonderfully told, encapsulating a kind of spiritual journey that many of us go through.  There are no parlor tricks at play here...what we are witnessing is a showdown between a very real God and a very real Satan, and the battleground is not Africa, but the human soul.

I applaud this movie for the courage to take its theology and religious philosophy seriously...no little 'winks' to let you know that it's really just a fantasy or a joke.  There is real profundity at play here, and eternal matters are given weight and thoughtfully contemplation.  But on the other hand, I wanted to be scared a lot more than I was.  The original film remains one of the scariest I've ever experienced, and it managed to be horrifying while taking its source material seriously.  Dominion achieves a kind of quiet, wakening spiritual dread, but its slow pace and lack of terrifying moments might try the patience of some fans.

Still, if you get past the fact that you won't be watching a typical scare film, and are willing to drink in a serious treatise on God, the devil and the humanity that dwells between them, Paul Schrader's film will be the version you treasure more.  Renny Harlin may know how to deliver a big, empty crowd-pleaser, but a sober reflection on the real nature of good and evil?  You don't see that every day.

Video ***

This is a mostly good looking transfer from Warner...the film employs a look that is frequently saturated by harsh sunlight or enveloped in darkness.  As such, there is occasional grain and softness and less color definition.  These are likely artistic choices by Schrader, and though they don't lend to crafting the best looking DVD you'll own, they're still effective overall...no real complaints.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is a real treat, as they tend to be with horror movies.  More than just a barrage of sudden noises and music cues, Dominion provides an enveloping, atmospheric approach.  The rear stage adds constant ambience with echoes, winds, crowd noises, and the kinds of sounds you'll hear in a deep dig beneath the earth's surface.  Dynamic range is strong, dialogue is clean and clear, and when it does come time for the movie to deliver, watch out.

Features **

The disc includes a commentary by Paul Schrader...informative, but occasionally a little dry.  There are also 6 deleted scenes and a stills gallery.


One back story, two films.  The Renny Harlin movie may have gotten the theatrical glory, but for my money, the more thoughtful, more serious approach by Paul Schrader is the better of the two.  Dominion won't be the scariest thing you've ever seen, but it will get you to contemplate good and evil as real and tangible forces rather than as fleeting ideas.

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