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Dominion vs. Excorcist: the Beginning

Posted on November 1, 2005 by Flames


Available at Amazon.com

This review WILL contain MAJOR SPOILERS, so be warned. It also assumes some foreknowledge of Harlin’s Exorcist: the Beginning and of the original The Exorcist.

For those unaware, this is the “alternate” version of the Exorcist prequel, directed by Paul Schraeder. It marks the first time in history that two entirely different versions of a film have been commissioned by a studio, and that both have seen major release (though Dominion’s theatrical release was far more limited than that of The Beginning.) Naturally, watching the films inevitably breeds comparison between the two. So which is a better film? Which is a better prequel? Are the two mutually exclusive or do they go hand-in-hand? Let’s see, shall we?

Both films concern the same basic two plot elements–the uncovering of a church that was buried in the desert to trap a demonic force beneath it, and the clash of the local Derkani natives with the British army as the demon grows in power. The final showdown between Merrin and the demon takes place in the pagan temple beneath the church in both films, but almost everything else (including the possession victim) is different. I’ll get to details in a moment.

Four actors portray the same characters: Merrin, Major Granville, Jomo and Chuma. The rest are different, though two characters reappear with different actors: Gabriel Mann plays Father Francis, and Clara Bellar plays the female doctor, whose name for some reason is different (Rachel rather than Sarah).

Dominion was billed as more cerebral and creepy than Harlin’s overt Exorcist: The Beginning, and in many ways it is. I can’t say that I liked it better, though, at least not as a prequel to The Exorcist. As a film, perhaps, yes. It’s smarter, and the evil is much more seductive and insidious. But it doesn’t in any way resemble the demon we later see in The Exorcist, while Harlin’s version uses the same voice, the same makeup F/X, even the same lines of dialogue which the demon will later torment Merrin with through Reagan. Rather, Schraeder’s demon (clearly identified as Lucifer, the Great Deceiver) is a vision of beauty and perfection, and makes its presence known as it heals a horribly injured and mutilated boy. This demon’s approach is temptation, not blasphemy, and it offers both Rachel and Merrin the opportunity to rewrite the evils of their pasts, and so be freed of the guilt that burdens both. Rachel falls prey to the demon’s temptations but is saved by Merrin’s intervention before her soul can be completely rewritten for the devil. Merrin, naturally, plays out the rewrite scene in his head and sees it for the lie it is.

Alas, both films wander into the bad and over-the-top where the demon’s power is presented. Schraeder’s version really likes its telekinesis. If you thought the spider walk on the cave wall in Harlin’s version was over-the-top, consider that Schraeder’s Lucifer, once revealed, throws people around like rag dolls with nods of its head.

And while we’re on the subject of FX, if you hated the CGI hyenas in The Beginning, close your eyes against the animatronics one in Dominion. It looks like a stuffed animal with ball bearings in its neck.

Schraeder’s version also uses a different statue, barely recognizable as the same pagan deity we see in the later film, while Harlin uses the exact same image. Harlin’s approach in this case makes more sense, given that Merrin in The Exorcist immediately recognizes the image of Pazuzu (sorry; it has to be said) as that of the demon he faced once before.

The characters: Merrin in the Schraeder version has not quit the priesthood entirely; rather he is described as “on Sabbatical,” meaning the Church will welcome him back when his crisis of faith has passed. He is still considered a priest, not an ex-priest as in the Harlin version. A minor distinction, but one that some might consider important to the character, as it implies that Schraeder’s Merrin, while he outwardly has lost his faith, hasn’t completely given up on God inside. This Merrin is quieter and more introspective than his more cynical Harlin counterpart, but both versions are good representations of the same character, and both are easily grown into von Sydow’s version.

Gabriel Mann’s Father Francis is much, much better than James D’arcy’s. The only reason I can come up with for Mann being better is that his character just seems so much more genuine and sincere. The lack of a Church conspiracy in Schraeder’s version also possibly makes Mann’s character more likeable.

Major Granville is a far, far different character in the Schraeder version. He is much more likeable, far less “Superiority of the British Empire,” and more respecting of the native culture. This makes his eventual temptation and fall much more powerful. He commits the murder of a Derkani tribal leader and eventually suicide in both films, but his suicide scene in Schraeder’s packs a greater impact. In Schraeder’s version, he knows what he has done. He acutely feels the guilt and remorse of having murdered a man in cold blood, who likely has done nothing wrong. He tells his right-hand-man to deliver the message to Merrin that “I know what he has faced all these years. Tell him that there is no way out. This is the only escape.” This as opposed to Harlin’s Granville, who just goes Cthulhu crazy and gaks himself. I liked Granville’s portrayal in Dominion far better than in The Beginning.

Chuma is nearly identical in both films. He’s a bit wittier and smarter, and overall more likeable in Harlin’s version, and in that, I think Harlin is the more successful. Jomo is a more important character in the Schraeder version, as his grief over his son’s death (by a fanatical tribesman rather than hyenas) eventually turns him away from God and leads to a wonderful scene where he asks Merrin, “is this how the Almighty treats those who have kept faith with Him?”

Merrin turns and snaps, “YES!”

In characterization, Schraeder wins, with the exception of Chuma and Rachel/Sarah, who I think is much better developed and more interesting in Harlin’s version.

One story aspect that Schraeder nails which Harlin doesn’t is that in Dominion the possession victim is, in fact, a boy as stated in the original Exorcist. Of course, there are dozens of ways to explain away Harlin’s inconsistency (not the least of which is that in neither version of the film was the exorcism sanctioned by the Church nor properly documented) so this is a minor success for Schraeder in terms of standing as a prequel.

Merrin’s rediscovery of his faith is comparable in both films; neither can claim victory here. Schraeder’s prologue sequence, which shows the entire flashback of Merrin’s experiences with the retreating Nazi soldiers, packs far more of a punch than Harlin’s field of bodies; it should have been maintained and the field of bodies cut entirely. Likewise, Schraeder’s epilogue, in which a Derkani tribesman informs Merrin that the demon has now become his enemy, should have been left in Harlin’s film, perhaps just before Harlin’s own superb epilogue sequence with Ben Cross.

Harlin’s version of the prequel was roundly panned as being too overt and shocking. In terms of gore, however, the only scenes that Harlin has which Schraeder does not are the suicide of Bession (a character that doesn’t exist in Schraeder’s version), the field of bodies in the prologue (a scene not in Schraeder’s), and the scene in which the demon injures Derkani who attempt to perform their own exorcism (another scene not present in Schraeder’s). It could be argued that Schraeder’s crucifixion scene in the church is more shocking, as it involves two men, one of which is decapitated and his head placed on a platter (a la John the Baptist). Schraeder’s execution scene with the Nazi’s, as well as his depiction of Granville’s murder of the Derkani tribesman are both more graphic than Harlin’s. So it’s perhaps ironic that Harlin was hired to “gore up” the film, when his added shock scenes don’t make all that much difference in the end.

Further, these same people who panned the shock aspects of Harlin’s film need to go back and re-watch the original film. The Exorcist was a film that succeeded specifically because it was shocking! People passed out from terror in the isles, and people actually left the theater in a medical state of shock from what they saw on the screen. Can anyone honestly say there was anything in Harlin’s version that was more shocking, overt, or over-the-top than the crucifix-rape scene in the original? I didn’t think so. But time passes, great films become mythologized in the minds of viewers, and change into something they never were. Take the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example. Many people consider that a gorefest, splatteriffic film…when in fact there is very little gore in it at all.

With the exception of the possession victim twist, Harlin’s film went back to the original source material and did everything it could to remain faithful to that source. Schraeder’s version did no such thing, succeeding as a prequel only in the lack of that possession victim twist. In the end, I think Schraeder produced a more atmospheric, intelligent film, which stands out perfectly on its own, but Harlin produced a better prequel that was more faithful to the original. To truly get the most out of Harlin’s version, a viewer should watch it, followed by The Exorcist, followed by The Exorcist III, all in immediate succession. Schraeder’s version, by contrast, stands out as a fine film in its own right. Neither is perfect, but with the omission of one or two Harlin scenes, replaced with one or two Schraeder scenes, would’ve made a great film all around.

End ratings:
Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning
As a film: 3.5
As a prequel: 5

Schraeder’s Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist
As a film: 4
As a prequel: 2

Reviewer: Jason Vey

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