If you’re a certain kind of moviegoer — my kind — then the announcement that Paul Schrader’s prequel to The Exorcist, was being shelved after it had been fully shot and edited only stoked your desire to see it. After all, what crime against popcorn could Schrader, the acclaimed director of Auto Focus and Affliction, possibly have perpetrated that would inspire Morgan Creek, the film’s production company, to dump his version and reshoot the entire thing — with Renny Harlin, that hack-of-all-trades, directing? Reports at the time indicated that Schrader, working from a script co-written by novelist Caleb Carr, had delivered a slow and brooding ”art film” instead of the gory, sensationalist head-twister the studio wanted. But one executive’s pretentious dud is another’s masterpiece. Could Schrader’s film really have been that bad — or was it a victim of degraded tastes, the daring and poetic franchise horror movie the Man didn’t want you to see?
The strange saga of Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is now complete, since the Man, in his wisdom, has chosen to release it after all. Perhaps he looked at the tepid box office grosses generated by Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning and figured that he had little to lose by shoving another slab of overcooked deviled ham into theaters. Schrader’s film is a notch better than Harlin’s (it’s elegantly framed, and stately where the other one was music-video pushy), but when you boil out the demon feathers…it’s the same damn movie.
Once again, we’re treated to the dusty desert saga of the 40ish Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), who undergoes a crisis of faith after being forced, at Nazi gunpoint, to make a Fatal Moral Choice. Trading his priest’s robes for an archaeologist’s khakis, Merrin arrives in East Africa, where he finds a cadre of British military colonialists running roughshod over the natives. He also finds a church, buried up to its dome in sand, haunted by the spirit of the Antichrist. The key word in that sentence is ”spirit.” The Exorcist showed you the devil, but Dominion mostly suggests him, with oodles of omens and stylishly arid tableaux.
Dominion is far too straightforward in its spook tactics to be pretentious. There are moments, however, when it does seem as if the director is making Diary of a Country Priest as a light show of floating dread. The movie shares one jolting shock image with Harlin’s Exorcist — a bloody fetus covered in maggots — but the relative absence of crude effects would be more compelling if Skarsgard had something to do aside from looking impotent in his anguish. Schrader, in Auto Focus, displayed a devious sense of sin, but in Dominion the Calvinist schoolboy in him insists on trumping sin with guilt. Had the movie stayed on the shelf, it might have haunted Schrader’s résumé as a theoretical lost gem. As it is, viewers can now decide for themselves whether it was his version or Harlin’s that squeezed this franchise dry.