I wish that I could say that Schrader's film is the perfect alternative to Harlin’s repulsive Exorcist: The Beginning but although a much better film it is still an uneven work that flirts with greatness but misses the mark in accomplishing what a horror film should accomplish. Schrader’s film is cerebral, elegant and stately where the other one was music-video pushy and idiotic. But when you pull out the demon drag out of both films, they fail as horror films on some very basic level. Harlin’s film lacked the necessary atmosphere and genuinely scary scenes and felt like an action movie without any thrills. And if the original Exorcist shoved you the devil on your face, Paul Schrader’s Exorcist prequel barely whispers about it. Schrader’s film is a slow-paced, character driven, creepy and psychological mood piece that is full of atmosphere but hardly shocking or really scary.
Schrader’s version is both a pensive contemplation of a man's struggle with faith, and a movie that views demonic possession less as a singular occurrence (as in the original Exorcist), than as a conglomerate disease born out of the actions of men infecting entire communities as a result. Schrader’s Exorcist plays out much like a modern tragedy. This is illustrated in a very powerful WW II opening sequence in which a German SS officer rounds up the villagers for an interrogation and sets a machiavelical plan, in which he begins shooting the villagers. The lieutenant demands that Father Merrin identifies 10 folks who will also be executed. Should he refuse, the lieutenant vows to kill everyone. Merrin has to assume the role of executioner; an incident that will haunt him for the rest of his life. This sequence was hacked apart and sprinkled throughout the entire Harlin version severely hindering the building of suspense and the real meaning of this incident. In this version, it establishes the reasoning behind Merrin’s conflicted psychology and faith; something completely lacking in Harlin’s movie.
Similar to Exorcist: The Beginning, Dominion follows Father Merrin to a dig in Africa, were he has uncovered an ancient church with a crypt underneath. Then the plot begins to differ as a local crippled boy named Cheche is possessed when the crypt is opened. Merrin must renew his faith to save the boy.
This is a horror story in which gore is supplanted by ideas. In Schrader's world, demons are metaphors and abstractions, and the evil perpetrated is mostly limited to human behavior. The metaphysical elements of the story function not only as an illustration of the battle of good and evil but also as a metaphor for colonialism. There are no spinning heads, no pea-soup vomiting, no foul mouthed talk, and no “Regan MacNeil” makeup. And this is where Schrader goes awfully wrong. The film simply isn't horror. Rather than building tension or trying to frighten the audience, he prefers to focus on the theological and cultural aspects of the story with a few horror elements distilled throughout, but nothing seems intended to be genuinely scary. This is not what anyone, even the most cerebral moviegoer would expect from an Exorcist prequel. Schrader takes more of traditional approach to build up his story, but although a welcome change from Harlin's hyperactive MTVish direction, it also falters, moving at a snail's pace at times until an hour into the story when the devil finally makes his presence known.
The biggest difference plot wise in this version and an obvious improvement is in the handling of the possession story. Cheche an outcast amongst his own people, is horribly deformed. The transformation from harmless boy to fully possessed is heartbreaking. The devil has taken Cheche’s horribly deformed body and shaped it into a perfectly physical being. He also goes from being a gentle kind soul, to a wicked and evil creature. Cheche also levitates and glides demon-like but Schrader is mostly interested in the philosophical and moral debate than on the visceral schocks of the situation. When Merrin realizes that he must condemn the boy to a broken body for the rest of his life in order to save him, Dominion, at least for a moment is elevated beyond the tired stereotypes of the genre. Unfortunately this is not enough to position Dominion in the category of classic horror cinema.
There are other major improvements in this version. The performances couldn’t be more different. What Harlin used as throw-away underdeveloped characters or plot decoys for his idiotic "surprise ending", Schrader used to their fullest capacity. The characters in Dominion are fully fleshed out and meaningful to the storyline. Stellan Skarsgård is more affecting and more persuasive with this incarnation of Merrin. He plays him as a man tormented by inner demons, struggling with his faith as opposed to the Swashbuckler hero with a crucifix as in Harlin’s version. Father Francis as played by Gabriel Mann comes across as a much engaging character. An optimistic priest, deeply compassionate, spiritual and caring, and a sharp contrast to Skarsgard’s troubled and brooding Merrin. Equally different from her Harlin incarnation is the Polish doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar). And last but not least pop singer Billy Crawford plays the part of the crippled outcast with unexpected sensitivity. He is both moving and ultimately menacing as a being of sexual energy who exists only to tempt mortals with the things they most desire.
There are also some very powerful moments in the film as in a scene involving a classroom full of murdered African children. There is a also a fantastic dream sequence inspired by Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a sequence in which a village woman births a maggot-infested baby and the the intense climatic exorcism in which Satan appears as an androgynous levitating Budda.
The film was beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart, Last Tango in Paris), employing a dramatic sense of landscape and mood and the production design is also impressive. The visual effects are a mix bag and the music by Angelo Badalamenti, Trevor Rabin and a heavy-metal band called Dog Fashion Disco is effective most of the time.
No one will ever make a better Exorcist film as William Friedkin's original and if you go into this film expecting a scary, visceral experience you will be disappointed. If you go into this film with an open mind and are willing to accept its slow pace, its depth, sophistication, and sheer craft involved Dominion may at least help you erase part of the aftertaste of Harlin’s dog.