With the verdict swiftly in on Renny Harlin’s ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’ – to quote the immortal words of Bill Hicks: “piece of shit, say it and walk away” – the clamouring began for Paul Schrader’s original version to be released. Only to meet with a perplexing degree of critical indifference when it finally debuted on DVD under the unfortunately clunky title ‘Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist’.
Despite one essential (but minor) problem, ‘Dominion’ is far superior film to ‘Beginning’. The performances are generally better (Skarsgård has real gravitas in Schrader’s film whereas he sleepwalks through Harlin’s), the pace is more measured, the philosophical enquiry into the nature of good and evil is more pronounced (which isn’t to say it’s on the level of the original – it just seems more pronounced in ‘Dominion’ because it isn’t there at all in ‘Beginning’) and the exorcism is creepily effective and certainly the second best in the whole series.
Let’s clear up the matter of that one essential problem. Special effects. Mercifully, the budgetary limitations that denied Schrader a proper stab at post-production visual effects doesn’t debase the exorcism sequence. That could have been the film’s death knell. What it does spoil is some shots of wild dogs menacing Merrin as he goes to the aid of a leper shunned by the other tribesmen. Merrin looks properly fearful but sadly what he’s reacting to resembles some crazy version of Basil Brush with a crack problem and a grudge against humanity. Elsewhere, what should have been a heavenly radiance illuminating the firmament during the exorcism, calming the bloodlust between the British troops and the indigenous populace and bringing a traumatised and suicidal character back from the brink, just looks cheap and twinkly.
Schrader’s use of this device piles on the sanctimony a little too much, suggesting divine intervention. It’s one thing to have a priest – a servant of God; a vessel for HisHis will – casting out Satan, it’s something else to hint that He is opening the heavens and giving Merrin a bit of a helping hand. So much of ‘Dominion’ revolves around Merrin’s crisis of faith. Merrin has to come back to belief, to faith, himself.
Still, better this and the cooling of tensions between soldiers and tribesmen than the horrible blood ‘n’ guts for the sake of it massacre that blights Harlin’s film. And better still the nature of exactly who is possessed.
Forget the cheap emotional manipulation of Harlin’s version: it’s a little boy who’s possessed! No, it’s Merrin’s would-be girlfriend! In ‘Dominion’, we’re introduced to Cheche (Billy Crawford), a leper in his late teens shunned by the tribespeople for his deformities. His face is twisted into a perpetual grimace. He resembles somewhat the death mask that haunts Karras’s dream in the first film. No surprises that he becomes possessed. But ‘Dominion’ isn’t about surprises – it can’t be; the perameters in which it can operate were established by Blatty and Friedkin thirty years previously – it’s about inevitability.
Merrin is concerned with Cheche’s salvation; Rachel is convinced he can be healed medically. His possession seems to mock their hubris. Particularly since Merrin’s nemesis Pazuzu, making his first appearance, stage-manages the onset of his possession as a miracle. He heals rapidly and without a trace of scarring from an operation on his limbs. His deformities seem to disappear. He consents, at Father Francis (Gabriel Mann)’s behest, to baptism. Merrin, still in denial of his faith, leaves Francis to it. Francis quickly discovers that Cheche is possessed: his appearance transforms into an image of homo-erotic beauty. “I am perfection,” he sighs. His movements become graceful, panther-like, and finally supernatural as he glides into and out of sight.
Francis determines to perform an exorcism; but when he is brutally and terminally prevented from doing so, the task falls to Merrin.
There is something that ‘Beginning’, for all its faults, achieves to a small extent; and ‘Dominion’ realises perfectly: for the climactic exorcism to work dramatically and contextually (the context being the dynamic established in Friedkin’s film), it can’t just be about a demon being cast out of a possessed individual’s body; there also has to be an inherent and narratively established antagonism between exorcist and demon which goes beyond their immediate differences of theological affiliation.
“He will lie,” Merrin warns Karras in ‘The Exorcist’, “but he will mix his lies with the truth.” ‘Dominion’ (and ‘Beginning’ much less effectively but at least Harlin picks up on it) demonstrates that Merrin has learned this through bitter personal experience. The demon attacks Merrin using his complicity in Nazi reprisals, his wavering faith, his sexual attraction to Rachel. There is doubt in Merrin’s soul and the demon hammers away at it. Merrin looks genuinely tormented, genuinely frightened during Schader’s account of the exorcism. This is his testing ground; this defines whether Merrin loses his faith altogether, or whether it strengthens. This is where the Father Merrin of ‘The Exorcist’ is forged.
“You have made an enemy of the demon,” one of the tribesmen tells Merrin at the end of ‘Dominion’. “He will pursue you now.” Think of that blood-curdling roar from the upstairs room of the MacNeil house as von Sydow arrives: “MERRRRRRIIIIINNNN!!!”
‘Dominion’, not Harlin’s weak revamp, is the true beginning.