Monday, November 07, 2005

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist / ** (R)

Father Merrin: Stellan Skarsgard
Father Francis: Gabriel Mann
Rachel: Clara Bellar
Sergeant-Major: Ralph Brown
Emekwi: Eddie Osei
Major Granville: Julian Wadham
Cheche: Billy Crawford

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Caleb Carr and William Wisher Jr. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for strong violence and disturbing images).

There is a craft to writing that gives it the illusion of magic. Many think good storytelling has to do with the inclusion of a great many details; but more important to creating magic with a story than what is put into it, is what is left out. Warner Bros. has desperately tried to franchise The Exorcist, one of their most successful -- both critically and commercially -- horror films, for over three decades. They have tried telling the stories of different principals of the original, both prior to and following the events of that first film; but save for The Exorcist III: Legion, which is the only to attempt to tell a very different story than the original, all their efforts have fallen short, and Legion did not do well commercially.

Their latest effort was their greatest fiasco, in which they tried to zoom in on the little information that was given about the Father Merrin character in the original movie. The first film states that this aged man who performs the exorcism has previously performed one in Africa in his youth during which a priest was killed. That little tid bit of information provides the audience with much to ponder about this no nonsense character who can tap into and combat an evil that no one else in the film seems to understand. Warners has now tried to tell Merrin’s story not once, but twice (that isn’t even counting the flashback sequences in Exorcist II: Heretic), and have failed on both occasions to tell a compelling story.

Last year’s release Exorcist: The Beginning and now Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist may well prove that the less said about Merrin’s past, the better. In fact, Warner Bros. knew this, but forced the two movies upon an unsuspecting public anyway. Disappointed with what director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) produced, Warner Bros. hired Finnish director Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight) to make an entirely new film. Re-casting many of the principal characters and hiring a new writer to produce a new shooting script from William Wisher (T2: Judgment Day) and Caleb Carr’s original. Harlin’s film was a critical and commercial disaster. So Warners decided maybe they should give Schrader’s version a shot in the market with a limited release in theaters at the beginning of the summer of 2005 and a higher profile DVD release. Well, although Schrader’s version looks like a masterpiece compared with Harlin’s, Warners should have just let the franchise slip quietly away after the beating it took from the first version.

Schrader’s version opens during the Nazi occupation of Poland where a young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, King Arthur) is forced by a German officer to make a terrible choice that will test his faith in God and himself until something as undeniable as coming face to face with the demon Pazuzu forces his hand back into the graces of God. His rediscovery of faith in both versions of this film are perhaps their weakest aspects.

Merrin tries to escape his memories of the war by taking a sabbatical from the church and pursuing his love of archeology to a site in North Africa where a Byzantine church has been discovered, apparently buried on purpose. The dig is under the supervision of the British Military, whose Major Granville (Julian Wadham, The English Patient) clashes with the local tribesmen. Merrin and the church representative, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann, The Bourne Supremacy), and the camp’s doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) take a charity case helping a cripple from the local tribe, Cheche (Billy Crawford, Everlasting Love). Eventually, Cheche is miraculously healed and Granville demonstrates an uncharacteristic aggressiveness toward the tribesmen.

Here’s the thing. It would be tempting to say this film was a worthwhile effort in the way it takes the demonic possession seriously rather than exploitatively as in Exorcist: The Beginning, but the truth is I nearly fell asleep during the first forty minutes of run time. Then it gets really good for the next forty minutes or so; but the last twenty minutes – the exorcism itself – while not as garish as the one in The Beginning, is nearly as ludicrous.

Schrader makes two major mistakes in his approach to this material. First, he does not play to his own strengths as an auteur. Leaving the screenplay in the hands of Wisher and Carr disregards his own keen attention to human nature he has demonstrated in his own screenplays from Taxi Driver to Affliction. While the character of Merrin here does fall in with Schrader’s typical flawed hero themes, Merrin is not really flawed in the dark ways most of Schrader’s heroes are. His dark secret was something he was forced into; and while Skarsgard is the perfect vessel to carry the weight of Merrin’s guilt, this clearly good man is not as compelling as the typical Schrader warped protagonist.

Second, Schrader does not seem to place any importance on the pedigree of this material. It is almost as if he purposely removed all references to the original Exorcist, save for the name Father Merrin. I’m not even sure the name of the demon Pazuzu is mentioned in the film, although it is easily found in the film’s press materials. But more importantly he seems to miss what made that original film so successful: the full involvement and detailed portrayal of the Catholic Church and its stance on demonic possession, and the everyday approach to the horror making it more palatable and frightening to the audience. Merrin never even notifies the church of the exorcism in this story claiming, “There is no time!” And the character of Cheche is never given the screen time to discern the difference between his real personality and that of the demon which possesses his body.

The Exorcist is a unique film that truly defies its genre, a dramatic horror film that works as both a frightening experience and an evocative one. The only other film in the series that works on the same dramatic level was the one that also came from the mind of The Exorcist’s original creator William Peter Blatty. Perhaps only Blatty himself can fully understand what elements are necessary to make this material work. Perhaps Warner Bros. should take their cue from Blatty himself and retire the material for good.

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