It’s more than a little appropriate — or ironic, or coincidental, or sheer bad luck — that Paul Schrader’s Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist finds itself in theaters the same weekend as Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith takes its bow. Schrader and George Lucas, after all, are old friends who gobble up a considerable chunk of Peter Biskind’s 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; along with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, the two writer-directors are counted among the “film school generation, the so-called movie brats” about which Biskind writes in his history of moviemaking in the 1970s. Like most of the men Biskind writes about, these makers of visionary cinema and blockbuster attractions — Schrader, a writer of some of Scorsese’s best films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and Lucas — are portrayed as both heroes and villains, credited with saving Hollywood from intellectually bankrupt studios and then burying it beneath the smoldering rubble of ego, drugs, madness, and out-of-control ambition. (Lucas, an occasionally generous financier of experiments he would never conduct himself, even produced one of Schrader’s films as director, 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Parts, a brilliant, pretentious, and ultimately meandering examination of the life and suicide of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. It cost some $5 million to make and pocketed $450,000; the Force was not strong with that movie.)
Now, some three decades after they fired shots in a revolution that now feels like ancient history, they pull into cinemas carrying prequels to 1970s benchmarks — Schrader’s, the origin story of a doomed hero (The Exorcist‘s Father Merrin); Lucas’, of course, revealing how a whiny brat named Anakin became an asthmatic monster named Vader. Lucas returns victorious, a billionaire with one more cash machine left in him, while Schrader limps into theaters a wounded soldier seeking only pride, retribution, and salvation. Not only is he in need of redemption after the disappointing Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus and the direct-to-cable debacle that was 1999’s overlooked Forever Mine, but he’s also out to prove wrong the studio bosses who humiliated him by snatching away his Exorcist prequel and giving it to one of the worst directors still getting work.
If you do not know the story, here it is in brief: After execs at Morgan Creek saw a rough cut of Schrader’s movie, they so disliked its proselytizing tone and pedestrian look, they brought in Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, the new Mindhunters) to direct, hired a new writer, and even brought in an almost entirely different cast to reshoot from scratch what was essentially a finished movie. But Harlin’s 2004 actionless action movie, Exorcist: The Beginning, tanked, Schrader and writer Caleb Carr screamed bloody murder (at each other, occasionally), and finally the director was allowed to recut and release his own version. And so here we are. Why? Not even the accountants can know for sure.
Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist — which has been known by such cumbersome and confusing titles as Exorcist: The Original Prequel and Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Beginning — is the film this lapsed Calvinist was meant to make. What better project can there be for a man who was taught that theaters are dens of iniquity than a film that takes place in an African temple built to capture a demon? If only the rest of the movie made as much sense — and, for that matter, if only there were an explicable reason for the release of a movie that is hamstrung not only by a dopey plot, but also by some truly frightening acting and the worst special effects this side of 1975. (The computer-generated devil dogs look as though they were made on a Commodore 64.) How this didn’t go direct to DVD, or Betamax, is the movie’s biggest mystery.
Since this critic has never seen Harlin’s version, because life is just too short, this will not be a game of compare and contrast. Schrader’s is lousy all by its lonesome — chatty when it wants to pretend it’s deep and spiritual, messy when it’s striving for chaotic and thrilling, boring when it has no other options left. Only Stellan Skarsgård, in the role of Father Lankester Merrin (originated by Max von Sydow in William Friedkin’s 1972 original) and one of the only cast members common to both prequels, seems to be engaged in the proceedings. As a man of faith who witnessed, and blames himself, for an atrocity committed by a Nazi officer during the war, Merrin carries on his shoulders such guilt and shame that their weight seems to make him a foot shorter.
But Skarsgård is surrounded by a cast of pros behaving like acting-school amateurs, including Gabriel Mann as true believer Father Francis, Clara Bellar as the nurse who wants to save more than Merrin’s soul, and Billy Crawford as Cheche, a horribly deformed young man whose injuries are healed when he is possessed by You Know Who. The movie goes nowhere for about an hour, then finally turns into a superhero story when Merrin dons his holy togs for the first of his two rounds with the devil — who, in this case, looks like a thirty-year-old bald baby in a diaper and is as easy to defeat as Muhammad Ali was in the fall of 1980. It ain’t scary, just silly as hell.