Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenplay: Alexi Hawley
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård (as Father Lankester Merrin); Izabella Scorupco (as Sarah); James D'Arcy (as Father Francis); Ralph Brown (as Sergeant Major); Julian Wadham (as Major Granville); Andrew French (as Chuma); Ben Cross (as Semelier)
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: William Wisher Jr. and Caleb Carr
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård (as Father Lankester Merrin); Gabriel Mann as (Father Francis); Clara Bellar as (Rachel Lesno); Billy Crawford (as Cheche); Julian Wadham (as Major Granville); Ralph Brown (as Sergeant-Major Harris); Israel Aduramo (as Jomo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror Movies #104-5
The following is not just a review of either Exorcist: The Beginning or Dominion, but both at the same time. It's a truly curious, one-off viewing experience to see both films for the first time together in a double bill, an experience I actively recommend readers to try for themselves if they can. It actually justifies the auteur theory at least in terms that, with the almost exact cast and same type of story, but a different director, the person meant to steer a film can chart its course an As this is going to be a large review, using bullet points was wiser in comparing the two movies:
- The history, for the uninitiated, was that Morgan Creek commissioned a prequel for The Exorcist (1973) fourteen years after they produced The Exorcist III (1990). As unconventional as that production was in hiring William Peter Blatty to both direct and write it, this new prequel had Paul Schrader to helm it,. A legendary screenwriter and director, from writing Taxi Driver (1976) to making films like Mishima: Life in Four Chapters (1985), he would immediately bring something different to the film alongside his Calvinist Christian background. However Morgan Creek balked at the film he made, wanting a lurid scare film rather than a serious work like the original Exorcist, so they hired Cliffhanger (1993) Renny Harlin to "remake" the prequel with almost the exact same resources. Paying for two films, a backlash lead to Schrader's actually given a release a year after their official version was critically mauled at the box office.
- I vividly remember, through reading the mainstream film magazine Total Film, all this history as it played out, from the negative reviews of Harlin's at the theatres to Schrader's getting a DVD release, and its ironic to think, whilst Schrader's had some negative reviews as well, that ultimately a weird folly took place and now both exist within a Exorcist blu-ray set on my shelves almost like mirror opposites of each other that yet share alarming similarities..
- Both set after World War II, with Stellan Skarsgård as a young and disillusioned Father Merrin in both, Harlin's has the character sent to an archaeological site within British occupied Kenya to retrive an artefact, signposted from the beginning as a typical Hollywood redemption story where he gains his faith back. Schrader's already has him as the main man behind the dig, with greater concern as the British soldiers in the area make their prescience more know and develop animosity with the native villagers nearby. An ancient church, out of time and place, is found in both versions - Harlin's a decadent mausoleum in dire need of being in a Lucio Fulci film instead, Schrader's more minimal - which was meant to bury a sinister site of demonic power below it. Schrader's film, unlike Harlin's, actually explains the events that are about to happen so everything makes sense before it's all set up, allowing you to gain more detail to help engaging with the narrative.
- Harlin's film exemplifies the hyper stylist tone of early 2000s Hollywood cinema, which still gets inflicted on viewers now in horror cinema with its over use of editing and a grim grey look that's yet glossy and sheen. Whilst it's still a drama at first, it begings to follow the trope with this type of filmmaking of treating any non-action genre as an action film in pace and bombastic music. Even with legendary director of cinematography Vittorio Storaro on board, giving his version some morbid beauty like his Italian genre work of the seventies, its washed out by the heightened gloomy tone. In comparison, Schrader's is incredible sedate.
- It's understandable why some viewers might find it dull, but in lieu of Harlin's over produced version, the quieter more apocalyptic tone Schrader uses, with legendary Storaro's work much more rewarding as a result. The gradually paced plotting of Scharder's as various factors build up - doubt in God, the looming ghost of World War II, tensions between the local black African tribe and the white British colonists - works a lot better than Harlin's which eventually ends [Spoiler Alert] with nearly everyone being killed off for the sake of it.
- Noticeable, an entire character and plot point was erased from Harlin's, the character of Cheche (Billy Crawford), who starts off as being a trite stereotype of the physically disabled young boy who the viewer is meant to sympathise with, only for his apparent "miracle" healing which even heals the permanent birth deformities to start to become more supernatural and at odds alongside the other strange incidents taking place at the archaeological site. At least it stands out more than the horror clichés of evil that takes place in Harlin's. If the film wasn't meant to be an Exorcist film and trying to take itself seriously, it would've been a great Italian schlock demon film, with butterflies on a pin board suddenly turning into a crow's corpse and its ghoulish revelling in blood and goo. It's actually a surprise the film still gained only a 15 certificate in the UK because it manages to be so lurid in tone and gory, as almost the same script from the Schrader film gets turned into one of the Italian Exorcist rip-offs from the seventies like The Antichrist (1974).
- Sadly Harlin's still has pretentions to being serious, and coupled with the over stylised tone, what could've been entertaining in its brazenly luridness actually borders on the tasteless even for a desensitised horror fan like myself. Having a young boy mauled to death by CGI hyenas, especially as Schrader doesn't need to resort to such a thing in his version, becomes an overindulgence alongside scenes of gun assisted suicide or conflict. There's a lack of even justifiable ghoulishness from how much editing and shock value is placed into these scenes; rather than just a bed becoming alive and a room become ice cold like the original, the wall's smeared with gore and God knows what at one point as a pitch perfect example of how over the top it is. The entire film because of its portentous tone become distasteful rather than lurid in a fun way. It doesn't help either that, in both versions, the Nazis and the Holocaust are an explicit part of one character's back-story - nurse Rachel Lesno/Sarah (Clara Bellar in Scharder's, Izabella Scorupco in Harlin's) - Harlin at first trying to take it seriously but with the ramping up of demonic obscenities and CGI aided gore becoming problematic when the character is a concentration camp survivor with the number code permanently tattooed on her arm and mental scarring from the incident. Schrader's tries well to bring some great weight to this, whilst its shrugged to the side with deeply problematic outcomes in Harlin's for the sake of the shocks in the finale.
- The different casting of this nurse character is the only really drastic change in terms of the casts. Scorupco, in fairness, has a lot more going for her in performance than being cast (in a problematic move) as the more sexy, super model version of this character in Harlin's, but frankly Clara Bellar is a much more interesting actress and more charismatic onscreen. Ironically Bellar is in less of her version of the film, not central to it as Scorupco is in Harlin's, but has more weight to her lines because Schrader's is more subtle and juggling countless characters' dramatic threads within a demonically possessed environment. Harlin's is the only one of the two which replicates the possession of the original film, Scorupco made up in grotesque make up and screaming (in dubbed in demon voices) sexually explicit comments at Father Merrin; not played as intentionally ridiculous it's terrible, emphasising the risk the original 1973 film took in having this content but still being able to be a serious drama.
- In terms of the rest of the cast, most of them are in both films, presenting a curious scenario (regardless of the quality of one film compared to another) of the same characters existing in two different parallel universes with different fates, which would've made both films existences worthy if Harlin's was any good. Stellan Skarsgård, though, is good in both, able to overcome any issues with either with the same intent as Max von Sydow, as the older Father Merrin in the original, can in any film no matter how bad.
- Schrader's, if there's any criticism to it, is not a scary film, instead a drama within the trappings of horror, occasionally leaping into horror with some good creepy effect (such as when cows have killed hyenas, rather than the other way around, and started eating the fresh corpses in one particularly sinister moment). The CGI is also worse than even Harlin's, though that could be as much its unfinished nature due to its production history. Where it succeeds however is as a fascinating character study which builds and escalates in tension to an almost apocalyptic tone. At first its significantly more subdued in visual look and tone, but gradually builds to a greater sense of intensity with Merrin's religious doubt in the centre properly built up for effect. Schrader is also willing to be stylish, such as a strange dream sequence almost tipping the hat to The Exorcist III, or its apocalyptic tone of the finale where the African landscape under a fantastical lowering sun has great impact thanks to Vittorio Storaro's work. Whilst Harlin's should've become the Lucio Fulci rip-off it clearly wanted to be on a Hollywood budget, rather than the misfire where an exorcism leaves invisible blows on a demonically possessed person like a Stephen Chow film, Schrader's for its flaws is a deeply underrated work. Especially in context to most horror series sequels, it's a peak above many in actually wanting to be serious and of artistic worth, succeeding in most places.