Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist

Dominion - Prequel to The ExorcistSynopsis: A supernatural evil comes to a post-World War II archaeological dig in British East Africa. Or is the escalating toll of death and dread the inevitable result of human nature? Father Merrin witnessed man at his worst during the war, and it led him to abandon the priesthood. Now supervising the excavation of a mysterious church, he must rediscover his faith to combat a foe who’s cunning, unrelenting and immortal.

Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist is the bold, eye-filling revelation of events that thrust Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) onto a showdown course with mankind’s most insidious enemy. Paul Schrader (director of Auto Focus, screenwriter of Taxi Driver) directs, bringing insight and palpable terror to the newest chapter of the famed horror series whose battleground is the human soul. The fear is here. It will shake you to your core.


Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist 6.0

eyelights: the setting. the core plot.
eyesores: the setting. the bland cast. the special effects. the ending.

“We all must make our little deals with the devil, Merrin.”

The road to and from ‘The Exorcist’ leads to Hell. The horror film, released in 1973, was such a monstrous success that it inevitably led to the studio wanting more of it. Its answer, 1977’s ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’, was a colossal mistake, earning a reputation not just as one of the worst movies in cinematic history, but as a franchise killer.

It would take nearly 15 years for another sequel to be unleashed on the masses. A massive improvement, the movie was hampered by studio interference, ensuring its box office failure. Another 15 years would pass before another ‘Exorcist’ film, this time a prequel, would be produced. Sadly, this would also be hampered by severe studio interference.

Paul Schrader’s ‘Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist’ takes us to the mid-’40s, and relates to us the experiences that would shape Father Merrin into the titular exorcist of the 1973 masterpiece. It begins in Holland in 1944, at the tail end of World War II and puts Merrin in a confrontation with a Nazi SS Commander seeking revenge for the death of one of his own.

This conflict would shake him to his core, losing faith and turning his back on his vocation.

Flash forward to 1947, and Merrin is now in Kenya preparing for an archaeological dig, having found an old Byzantine Church buried in the sand, built well before Christianity had reached the region. However, he is saddled with Father Francis, a missionary that the Church pairs him up with to ensure that the site is not desecrated; they no longer trust Merrin.

With the support of the British Commander supervising the area, they proceed to unearth the Church, which is strangely intact, suggesting that it was buried immediately after construction. Hidden inside it are untold riches, but what really intrigues Merrin is what they find underneath it: a hidden crypt filled with demonic imagery and signs of human sacrifice.

What Fathers Merrin and Francis don’t realize is that they’ve let loose something evil, something they will have to confront if they want to live. Merrin will begin to suffer from nightmares, unnatural atrocities will befall the region (stillbirths, cattle eating hyenas and dying, …etc.), tensions will rise between the British and the locals.

And then there’s Cheche. A horribly crippled local teenager, Cheche is a wary recluse who has seen much violence at the hands of the locals, who despise him. Merrin will befriend him and then try to help him heal from his wounds, to rehabilitate him. But Cheche will be the perfect vessel for the evil that has escaped, and Merrin will have to confront it.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about ‘Dominion’. On paper, it’s an excellent story: this exploration of Merrin is interesting and it makes sense on some levels. But, for some reason, it makes for a deathly dull motion picture. For all the events that take place, at no point is one riveted and looking forward to seeing what will transpire next.

One of the key problems is in the casting of Father Merring. While I usually like Stellan Skarsgård, his version of Merrin is a worn, unlikeable character; he’s so grim that it’s hard to side with him. Aside for some initial sympathy during the 1944 segment, one couldn’t possibly care less what happens to the guy – even if he will eventually become significant in the 1973 film.

The rest of the cast is also problematic in that none of them are stellar; they all reek of second banana. All of them. And then there’s Clara Bellar, as Rachel Lesno, the nurse that Merrin works with. Her delivery is so jarringly bad that every moment she was on screen, I couldn’t help but disconnect and try to understand if it was intentional or inadvertent.

I suspect that some incendiary performances would have likely knocked this picture up a couple of notches – much like in ‘The Exorcist III’. But there’s also the fact that it doesn’t recapture the vibe of ‘The Exorcist’. The story and the setting are fine, but it’s a completely different beast: it’s slightly creepy, however it’s just not scary or atmospheric.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Mostly, though, there werea number of moments that left me incredulous:

  • Even though Merrin just said that the statues in the Church are holding something down, he and Father Francis immediately open the sarcophagus and go down into the crypt anyway – without questioning themselves about what could be being held below. Noitch.
  • After the evil is released and the British Commander is clearly not being himself, why didn’t anyone stop him from being a dick with the locals and shooting a little girl? Even if he is a high ranking officer, surely his behaviour should have elicited a response from someone, anyone.
  • Why does the Cheche suddenly have no hair after the baptism scene in the Church. after becoming possessed? And why did he never have eyebrows even when he had hair?
  • Why does the possessed Cheche just disappear after his encounter with Merrin, vanishes, and then reappears in a later shot with his hair back?
  • When Merrin confronts Satan, trying to do an exorcism, Satan tempts him to go back to 1944 and do things differently. This is an interesting angle, reminiscent of Jesus in the desert (Schrader wrote the script for ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, coincidentally enough), but Merrin is weak, relives the moment, and it changes nothing. It was so pointless.
  • Why is Merrin’s face covered in blisters during his confrontation with Satan? And why do they disappear in the next scene, as though it never happened?
  • How is it that Merrin was able to drive away Satan so darned easily? In fact, he had a much harder time of it in the original film.
  • The blooming romance between Merrin and Rachel is unbelievable. There is no heat, no tangible attraction, and who the !@#$ would be interested in a dour dude like Merrin anyway? This one felt paint-by-numbers and contrived to attract the ladies, to fulfill audience expectations.
  • After making awkwardly overt moves on Merrin, Rachel pretty much disappears from the movie. Where did she go? Had she fulfilled her role of giving audiences a make-out session and was now entirely disposable? At least she didn”t become a damsel in distress!

I just sat there with a bunch of questions cluttering my mind, preventing me from enjoying what should have been a spooky picture, unable to immerse myself.

And, sadly, it gets worse.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

One key problem with ‘Dominion’ is that it suffered from budget cutbacks and Schrader was reportedly only given 35 thousand dollars to finish it. This situation evidently hobbled the special effects budget, as evidenced when the dig is threatened by f-ing horrible CGI hyenas. I mean, couldn’t they have dressed up dogs as hyenas instead? Even that would have looked better!

Even simple things like overdubbing were poorly handled. For example, the possessed Cheche’s voice doesn’t fit his mouth movements. And the finale? The moment that should have been the most outstanding part of the whole picture? The effects in the duel between Merrin and Satan are so piss poor that they look like garbage compared to the original film – made 30 years earlier.

Le sigh…

‘Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist’ was to be released as ‘The Exorcist: The Beginning’, but the studio lost faith in Schrader’s vision, shelved the picture during post-production, and redid the whole damned thing under the direction of Renny Harlin. When the latter failed at the box office, Schrader’s film was given a token release with this new title. It earned better reviews.

But it also failed at the box office. And the series has not made a return since.

Story: 7.0
Acting: 7.0
Production: 6.5

Chills: 3.0
Gore: 3.5
Violence: 3.5

Date of viewing: September 22, 2014


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