In 100 years of movie business goldbricking, impulse production, and high-flying market pursuit, we’ve never seen anything quite like this: a movie—a prequel and the fourth entry in a decades-old horror franchise—made twice, the two variations on a theme released nine months apart, constructed by two different directors from two disparate screenplays and with minor cast overlap. (Historically, the only parallel is the 1930s Spanish-language versions Universal and other studios sometimes shot on a film’s sets after hours, for Mexican release.) In a nutshell, astringent moralist Paul Schrader shot, cut, and delivered his Exorcist film—detailing the African backstory of Father Merrin in the years after WW II—to Morgan Creek prez James Robinson, who was reportedly put off by the shortfall in monster F/X and by the surplus of ethical debate. He canned it, fired Schrader, hired Renny Harlin to reshoot, and voilà. Robinson’s seemingly madcap decree has proven to be its own publicity coup, and now Schrader’s once shelved, DVD-rumored half of the diptych is hitting real screens. “In the end, it’s a revenue stream,” Schrader told The Guardian last year, “and all revenue streams eventually reach the sea.”
Together, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion are a fascinating object lesson in new-millennium Hollywood, demonstrated by a pandering ’90s-formula slophog and one of the ’70s’ great aging tyrannosaurs, respectively. In the void between them, you can read in minute detail the industry’s crazed tension between coherence and sensationalism, story and light show, interest in mature viewership and condescension to the lowliest teenage brainpan. Both films—the original screenplay was by William Wisher and Schrader-fouling novelist Caleb Carr, while the second film’s rewrite was credited to Alexi Hawley—hone in on Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard), on clerical hiatus due to his guilt-sowing war trauma, pursuing instead a Christian archaeological dig in East Africa. He unearths an ancient temple, and everyone from the native workers to the British army begins to bug out in the familiarly baritone, contact-lens-wearing manner.
The similarities dry up thereafter. Predictably, Schrader’s version—which stands as the first film to use prequel in its title—is as sober as Harlin’s is beery. For Schrader, the Nazi flashbacks aren’t merely background, but a queasy slice of history that inevitably repeats itself; the question of whether evil is man-made or sui generis is tortured over, even as the levitating begins and the digital hyenas approach. Merrin’s female foil—a doctor attending to the locals—is here played by the eager and unglamorous Clara Bellar; the remake replaced her with the semi-dressed Polish sexpot Izabella Scorupco, who also got to fly, rasp, and vamp possessedly. Choose your Pazuzu experience accordingly.
In Schrader’s world, demons are best considered metaphoric abstractions, and the evil perpetrated is restricted to the tried-and-true human variety. The rather shoddy material is even upgraded so the metaphysical plague functions as a neat metaphor for colonialism—an easy and apt sprig of resonance too heady for the likes of Harlin. Of course, Dominion is itself too cheesy by half, complete with an oddly Hindu-ish, lounging-in-midair possessee and a cheaply biblical finale—but Robinson wasn’t wrong. It’s pulp in defiance of its own reading level. The film will come to share the video store shelf with Harlin’s infinitely stupider rendition soon enough, but it’s a shame they couldn’t have been released theatrically head-to-head—a death match-cum-clinical trial that might’ve supplied some objective stats on how much condescension the American moviegoer actually enjoys.