The Evil That Men Do

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

As an agnostic, the conclusion of Paul Schraeder’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist was deeply unsatisfying. Evil is unleashed on an eastern African town, and it is expelled by the power of ... God?

You might ask: What the hell did you expect, asshole?

It’s a fair question, but it’s not quite that simple.

For starters, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist spent a great deal of time, effort, and pea soup casting a demon out of a little girl; the task of getting an unclean spirit out of Regan required mortal sacrifice on the part of two priests. Schraeder’s movie has a priest cleansing a young man — and an entire geographic region — with seeming ease.

But there’s a larger issue: The nature of evil in the two movies is markedly different. There’s something almost comforting about the idea in The Exorcist that when Satan attacks, he manifests himself so obviously, and with such limited reach. Wouldn’t it be nice if the wicked of the world could be identified so readily by their ability to turn their heads 360 degrees?

In fairness, The Exorcist doesn’t claim that evil doesn’t exist outside of possession. But the demon inhabiting Regan is, obviously, the focus, and it has a ripple effect. If evil is so tangible — if you can watch it stab a girl’s genitals with a crucifix — then evil is something we can engage in face-to-face struggle. Evil is almost physical, in other words, and can therefore be quarantined and beaten. As startling and horrifying and vile as The Exorcist is, it is ultimately about the hard-fought triumph of God over Satan.

Schraeder makes only minor concessions to this premise. In Dominion, evil is more like a potent but diffuse contaminant, released from a pagan temple so powerful that Christians built a church on top of it, and then buried the church. This strain of evil spreads quickly, and without obvious physical manifestations; it is subtle and insidious and highly contagious. Once it is in the world, it surely cannot be contained or defeated.

This is what Roger Ebert was getting at when he succinctly wrote that Dominion “does something risky and daring in this time of jaded horror movies: It takes evil seriously.”

Yes, there is a possession in Schraeder’s film, but it doesn’t involve the aggressive grotesque that turned Regan from an innocent girl into a crude, disgusting, sexualized, filth-spewing monster. Evil in Dominion is more of the biblical sort, in which Satan seduces rather than scares us — the Father of Lies. When the devil does show its less-attractive face, it’s a quiet and quick display of power, a promise rather than a threat.

The entire movie is muted and deliberate, with a final confrontation that is anticlimactic and internal. That’s how it must be, but it doesn’t make for very satisfying cinema. The demon, ultimately, is more disquieting than distressing — androgynous and hairless, lithe and alien.

Schraeder, working from a script by William Wisher and Caleb Carr, almost seems to use the film to mock the executives who approved the project. Someone pitched them an Exorcist prequel, and they okayed it, even though all evidence would suggest that they didn’t even read the damned script. It’s a fascinating work, but its thoughtful manner even on the page is anathema to the modern horror franchise; from the outset, it’s pretty much a fuck-you to the luridness of the Exorcist series.

Dominion is a prequel in the sense that the tells the story of a character from the original movie, Father Merrin. (He was played by Max von Sydow in the 1973 film, and Stellan Skarsgård here.)

But Merrin was a minor figure in The Exorcist. He appeared in the prologue to Friedkin’s movie, and then returned late to assist Father Karras in the exorcism of Regan. This prequel essentially justifies the existence of Merrin in the first movie; his primary purpose in The Exorcist was to establish that the battle between God and demons had been a long-running concern, in case that particular conflict had eluded you.

In fleshing out the character of Merrin, then, Dominion is essentially a structural correction to Friedkin’s movie. He dominates this picture, and his own struggles with faith resonate with those of Karras (a similarly flawed priest).

In Dominion’s opening scene, Merrin is faced with one of those moral conundrums that seem to originate in philosophy classes: A Nazi officer tells Merrin that he must choose 10 of his parishioners to be killed, or soldiers will shoot them all. This understandably shakes the priest’s faith.

Several years later, Merrin is on an archeological excavation in Africa, related to this strangely buried church. The Vatican has sent the young Father Francis to check in on the wayward priest. Native workers at the dig are coming down with mysterious conditions. Two British soldiers are found gruesomely murdered and arranged in the church, and naturally the natives are suspected, resulting in escalating tension. A baby is stillborn crawling with maggots.

Yet while the air in this remote village seems poisoned by evil, a gimpy outcast boy appears to be healing miraculously well.

In a beautiful moment, one of the natives asks Merrin a question in the context of all the horrible things that have been happening: Is this how God rewards his faithful servants? The hardened priest doesn’t miss a beat, and says with more bitterness than sadness: Yes, it is.

The movie has flaws, to be sure. Skarsgård plays his role more as allegory than character, with a weary blankness. Schraeder similarly seems to be fighting realism. The lighting of the movie has a stagy quality that’s not dramatic enough to look like a choice but is too unnatural to be anything else; it’s amateurish and distracting.

And then there’s that final confrontation, which is something like a boxing match in which the combatants circle each other endlessly, neither throwing a punch.

But maybe this is exactly the effect Schraeder sought. If Satan’s greatest power is temptation rather than vomit, holy water and prayers would seem of little use. A blunt and heartfelt rebuke should do the trick.

Exorcist: The Beginning

As for the Renny Harlin-directed Exorcist: The Beginning — which was commissioned after Schraeder was famously canned — it uses the same sets, stars Skarsgård, and bears a vague story resemblance to Dominion.

Despite what you might have read, it’s not a botch. Harlin gave the studio exactly what it wanted: gross-out moments, a vulgar demon, a more dynamic and conventional soundtrack and visual style, a more telegenic cast, and tired and overripe symbolism. (Satan is the Lord of the Flies! Get it?! That’s why there are all these flies. And black birds, too! Because they’re portents of doom!)

More charitably, Exorcist: The Beginning is far more consistent with the 1973 film than Dominion is. It references images and words and sounds from the original — sometimes cleverly, often not. More importantly, it shares with Friedkin’s movie its literal conception of demonic possession. While Schraeder worked with a clear interest in moral evil, Harlin shoots Merrin’s story through only the supernatural lens.

The Beginning is dumb and coarse and confusing and obvious, but I don’t blame Harlin. Executives wanted the polar opposite of what Schraeder gave them, and they got it. All hail the wisdom of Hollywood!

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