The Curmudgeon


Sunday, November 20, 2005


Paul Schrader 2005

The subordinating subtitle, "Prequel to The Exorcist", does Dominion an injustice. Despite its original raison d'être - a cash-in effects-fest for Morgan Creek Productions - Dominion is quite capable of standing by itself.

The film's peculiar production history is tolerably well known. After its original director, John Frankenheimer, died at the helm, Paul Schrader was brought in to replace him. Schrader completed the film, but Morgan Creek disliked it so much that they hired a third director, Renny Harlin, to re-shoot it. The Harlin version was released as Exorcist: The Beginning; apparently it has the same basic story as Dominion, but with a few different characters and a lot more special effects.

But Dominion deserves to be known as more than simply the commercial runt of a pair of cinematographic Siamese twins. Indeed, like the Exorcist sequels - John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic and William Peter Blatty's Exorcist III - it is, in many ways, rather better than the original. Visually it is very impressive, shot by Vittorio Storaro and set, like the most chilling and atmospheric scenes in The Exorcist, at an architectural dig in an ancient country.

There are rough edges, of course. Although the ungainliness of the CGI hyenas, for this viewer at least, actually helps the film's atmosphere of unnatural threat, the CGI cattle are slightly less convincing than pantomime horses. A couple of lines in the script, while not quite ludicrous, are unnecessarily explicit and overwrought: "This boy is possessed!" squeaks Gabriel Mann at one point. For pedants like myself, Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin, though an unimpeachable actor, does not look remotely like Max Von Sydow, even twenty-five years younger.

On the whole, though, Dominion is really rather fine. It opens in 1944 in Holland, where an SS officer is carrying out reprisals for the killing of one of his men. He first asks Merrin to name the culprit ("these people confess to you"). When Merrin says that none of his parishioners carried out the killing, the officer says he will shoot ten of them as an object-lesson for the real culprit. Merrin offers his own life, but the officer is not interested: "You'd like that, wouldn't you." He tells Merrin to choose the ten to be killed; if he does not, the whole community will be massacred. As Merrin prays, the officer pats his shoulder and tells him gently, "God isn't here today." Faced with the choice of ten deaths against dozens, Merrin points out ten people for execution.

After the war, in the midst of a crisis of faith, Merrin is working as an archaeologist in British East Africa. A sixth-century Christian church has been found, its stones almost unmarked by weathering; the place has been built and then deliberately buried. Instead of looking towards heaven, the statues of St Michael and his cohorts stare down at the earth, sword in hand. The church has been erected and buried to keep a powerful demon imprisoned; once freed, the demon possesses a crippled youth and his baleful influence is felt throughout the camp.

Tensions rise with the arrival of a detachment of British troops, whom Merrin's young colleague Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) has called in to safeguard the church's considerable treasures - or, as Merrin cynically implies, to save them from looters other than the British Museum. When two soldiers try to steal a few jewels and are gruesomely killed, the British major behaves almost exactly like the SS lieutenant in the prologue, even to the extent of murdering a young woman to indicate the seriousness of his wish for co-operation. Even his own troops are horrified, and Merrin is able to do with the major what he couldn't do with the SS officer - step forward and punch him out.

Was the soldier to blame, or the demon? We have previously seen the major ordering his men to stand to attention as a gesture of respect to the Africans, and the sergeant-major tells Merrin that the murder was completely out of character. Later an African tribesman spears most of the children in Father Francis' class, because he believes Christianity is the cause of the evil. "Is this how God treats those who love him?" hisses an African convert who lost a son in the massacre. "Yes," Merrin says. Presumably, despite the SS officer's reassurances, God was present in Holland, 1944, as well.

Although the finale comes complete with the kind of effects that made The Exorcist a reputation so far beyond its deserts - vomited insects, suppurating blisters and the like - the horror scenes are intelligently restrained and therefore all the more effective. Schrader keeps the focus firmly on the characters and their dilemmas, and avoids the sterile, simplistic conception of good and evil favoured by William Peter Blatty, William Friedkin, and Hollywood. "It's amazing what you're capable of when your physical survival is at stake," a young doctor says to Merrin. The doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar) is a survivor of Chelmno concentration camp, and her experience of evil parallels Merrin's. Both of them have been forced to betray others to death; in Rachel's case to protect her life, in Merrin's case to protect (presumably) his immortal soul. When the demon is at his most powerful, he tempts both Rachel and Merrin with the chance to relive their worst moments, make different choices and, the voice of evil purrs, to gain "the freedom not to care".


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