NOVEMBER 14, 2008
It’s bad enough that Renny Harlin didn’t address the nature of his involvement with Exorcist: The Beginning, but it’s downright sinful that Paul Schrader never addresses all the reshoots and such on the commentary for Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, which was the original version that got completely reshot by Harlin and co. Sure, 2 hours of bitching would get annoying, but to completely ignore it is just odd. Then again, the track is about half silence, so maybe he got edited. Who knows?
What matters is the film, and maybe it’s just because I’ve been led to believe that it was terrible, but I thought it was pretty good. The biggest problem with it is that it’s slow. That worked for the first film, but by now, anyone sitting down kind of knows that they are in a horror movie, so there’s no need to kind of spring it as a “surprise” halfway through. Even the original had a couple of odd moments to let you know things were off-kilter (plus the freaky prologue in Iraq), but here it’s almost like they were trying to make you think you weren’t watching an Exorcist movie. In that respect, I can almost side with the producers.
But otherwise, on the whole it works better than Harlin’s (which I also think gets more shit than it deserves). It’s slow, sure, but it’s the good kind of slow that draws you in. Luckily, the danger is kept largely away from Merrin, putting instead Father Francis (played by the Zach Gilford-y Gabriel Mann here, in Harlin’s the role was recast) in harm’s way when shit hits the fan. Since the series has so many characters of equal importance, it’s not a “given” that the character will die simply because he wasn’t around for any of the sequels (as opposed to say, Qui Gon Jinn), and thus his fate is not sealed by our knowledge of what comes “later”.
It’s interesting to see how the films share certain, almost random similarities. The colonel guy’s scenes are all completely different, yet he still has a butterfly collection. And the odd bit of dialogue heard here found its way into Harlin’s version; the lines about the date in which the church was built (and subsequently covered) are almost verbatim in the two films. And they both have shitty CGI hyenas (so stop blaming Harlin for those!).
Despite all the superfluous changes (plotwise, and even structurally, the movies are a lot more alike than I expected, and I suspect if Mann was around for the reshoots, there would have been a lot more of Schrader’s footage in the Harlin version), the biggest is actually Stellan Skarsgard’s performance. Here he is genuinely acting, and doing a good job playing a man without direction or faith. In Harlin’s, whether it was an acting choice, a lack of discipline from Harlin, or simple disgruntled behavior, he just seems like an asshole. There’s a great scene here in which Father Francis admonishes him for trying to spread his lack of faith to others, and also a key moment when someone presents him with the age-old argument against God/Jesus: “Would such a great god allow this to happen?” and he simply mutters “Yes.” It’s good stuff, and while I admit to zoning out at times (on both films) I don’t recall anything that powerful in the Harlin film. And even if it was there, Skarsgard simply didn’t deliver the same way. Basically, the whole “priest has to regain his faith” story, used in a lot of movies (particularly horror) seemed a lot less generic in this version.
And there are still some decent scary moments. I particularly like when Merrin is finally doing the exorcism and the demon just sort of glides behind him, in and out of frame. Also, there are more genuinely horrific moments here; the kid being torn apart by hyenas in the Harlin version was more funny than anything, but I sure as hell didn’t laugh when one of the native guys wipes out a classroom of children in an attempt to keep “Jesus” from spreading in this one.
Now I basically wish I saw the film in production order (I watched Harlin’s cut first for the dumbest excuse ever – it was shorter. By three lousy minutes. Yeah, not too much of a good judgment caller), as the effectiveness of the story (still minor compared to Friedkin’s film) was dulled by watching a subpar version first. If you’ve never seen either, please start with Schrader’s.
Like the other one, extras are understandably slim, since Warner seems to be content with spinning their mishandling of the film (they didn’t like Schrader’s cut because it lacked gore – but they are the ones who initially approved the gore-less script!) rather than just being upfront with a situation everyone knows about anyway. So we get a dull commentary, and instead of a bland EPK, we get a bland collection of deleted scenes (none essential) with no insight as to why they were removed.
So now I’ve gone through the entire box set, and as expected, I needn’t have bothered buying it, since I already owned the original and that is the only one I’ll probably ever bother to watch again (p.s. let’s see a Blu-ray, Warner!). I find the behind the scenes stories far more interesting than the result of any of the sequels, but none of the DVDs address any of this at all. Which I don’t understand; the only people who WATCH extra features anymore (the novelty has long since worn off) are film geeks who all know damn well about the problems with all of the films, so why try to pretend that no problems existed? Even the equally lame Friday the 13th box from Paramount has some occasional juicy dirt on the commentary tracks.
What say you?