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A Tale of Two 'Exorcist' Prequels
'The Beginning' vs. 'Dominion.'
Because film is a collaborative medium, and because it costs a lot of money to produce even a small film, and because the people who have the money to finance a production are not often the same people who have the creativity to warrant a production, audiences sometimes wind up with two versions of the same movie.
I’m not talking about remakes, and I’m not talking about those odd instances of competing studios releasing different movies with similar premises a few months apart (e.g., Armageddon and Deep Impact, Antz and A Bug’s Life, Volcano and Dante’s Peak, Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached, etc.). I mean a movie is taken away from a creator, refashioned by a different creator, and then released before the original creator gets to unveil their version of the film; I’m talking about movies like Blade Runner, Superman 2, Justice League, and Brazil (although in the case of Brazil the suits’ version of the movie was actually released second, and only as a curiosity and a way of saying, “Hey, can you believe these idiots almost fucked this up?”).
And the thing is, while I wouldn’t advocate putting a filmmaker through this process, for film dorks, the results are always fascinating, because you get to see all the myriad ways even the smallest changes can have a large impact on the overall product.
The 2004/2005 case of dueling prequels to The Exorcist is an especially interesting one, because despite both versions being ostensibly the same story, and despite both versions have a substantial overlap in the cast, each version shares but a few frames of footage with the other. The studio didn’t reshoot parts of the same script with a different director, the way they did with Superman 2, and they didn’t rewrite and reshoot substantial additions and changes to the original footage, like with Justice League, and they didn’t just re-edit the existing footage, like with Blade Runner and Brazil. A studio made a movie, decided they didn’t like it, and then made the whole movie over again with a new director using a different script but the same story.
The first version of the movie - which was actually released second - is Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. That picture was directed by Paul Schrader, the guy who wrote such great films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and wrote and directed other other great films like Blue Collar and Affliction (although, oddly enough, he didn’t write Dominion’s screenplay, which is credited to William Wisher, co-writer of the first two Terminator movies, along with The Alienist author Caleb Carr).
The second version of the movie - which was released first - is Exorcist: The Beginning. That picture was directed by Renny Harlin, the guy who directed A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, and Cutthroat Island (his best movie is 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, but I chalk that one up to a top-notch Shane Black script). The story is still credited to Wisher and Carr, but the screenplay is credited to Alexi Hawley, who went on to create the television show The Rookie; it was reportedly also penned by an uncredited Skip Woods, who exclusively writes dreck like Swordfish and the two Die Hard sequels everyone hates.
Each iteration follows a younger version of the guy Max von Sydow played in the original movie, Father Lankester Merrin, as he travels to the Turkana region of British Kenya for an archaeological dig that, naturally, leads to his first experience combatting demonic possession. In each version, Merrin is played by Stellan Skarsgård, and in each version, he has left the church because some really fucked-up shit happened to him with the Nazis a few years earlier. Each version has a younger priest named Francis and a lady doctor, but they’re played by different actors and the lady doctor’s name has been inexplicably changed from Rachel to Sarah. Each version also has a bunch of other, lesser supporting characters who were not recast from director to director. A lot of the same events recur, too, and both iterations share at least one line of dialogue, which is a Nazi saying “God isn’t here today” before executing someone.
But The Beginning and Dominion are otherwise VERY different movies. And, unsurprisingly, each one is exactly what you’d expect, given its director.
Schrader’s film is deliberately paced, intimate, introspective, and existential; like most of his work, it wrestles with large theological issues, but on a small scale. Schrader tells us right away what happened to Merrin: Nazis tell him the priest can either choose ten members of his parish to die or he can watch as they’re all executed. Merrin refuses at first, but acquiesces after they kill one random middle-aged man. The movie later draws a direct parallel between the Nazis and British colonialism via a sequence with the British and the Turkana that unambiguously mirrors the sequence with Merrin and the Nazis. The lady doctor he eventually meets, Rachel, is played by the French actress Clara Bellar, and she, too, has a tragic story involving Nazis - she was in a concentration camp. She and Merrin do not have a romantic relationship, and she is still alive at the end of the story. The possessed, meanwhile, is a badly disfigured, disabled young man.
Harlin’s The Beginning is grandiose, slick, violent, exploitative, garish, and boorish; like most of his work, it wrestles with how to make the largest sum of money possible at the box office. Everyone is perpetually covered in a sheen of sexy sweat (in reality, they do this by spraying the actors with glycerine, which means all these poor performers suffer through production with uncomfortably-sticky skin). Merrin’s past is revealed only gradually, and the Nazis execute a little girl before they even given Merrin the chance to choose who will die, and the image of the little girl getting brutally shot in the head is played again and again and again and again, because Harlin can’t conceive of any other way to elicit emotion in the viewer. The lady doctor - here named Sarah - is played by former Bond girl Izabella Scorupco, who has to show ample amounts of flesh and pretend to be sexually interested - nay, aggressively sexually interested - in Skarsgård, who is nineteen years her senior. Sarah, like Rachel, was in a concentration camp, but not because she’s Jewish, only because her father was hiding Jews (you can draw your own conclusions as to why that change was implemented). She intimates that she was raped and mutilated by the Nazis, but it doesn’t bother her so much that she’s unwilling to immediately smile and start flirting with Merrin again. She turns out to be the one possessed, and she dies at the end, because Harlin loves casting women who resemble his ex-wife, Geena Davis, and then executing them (see also: Deep Blue Sea). And there is no badly disfigured, disabled young man, because Harlin would never dream of making his audience look at anything so aesthetically displeasing for two hours (unless you count Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger).
Truthfully, neither of these movies is particularly scary. Having said that, Schrader’s film is most definitely disturbing, because it’s largely concerned with the “banality of evil.” In Schrader’s worldview, Lucifer is a subtle manipulator, gradually leading humanity down a path that is corrosive both spiritually and physically… as opposed to Harlin, who sees Lucifer as a video game’s end-of-level boss, possessing all the subtlety of a rancid fart in a crowded elevator. Which, incidentally, is a good metaphor for most of his work.
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