May 04, 2005

Exorcist: Dominion - The Version We Should Have Seen

Father Merrin and the Demon in Paul Schrader's Exorcist: Dominion [image coutresy Warner Brothers]On May 20th, Paul Schrader's "shelved" original prequel to the Exorcist film series will hit theaters, and from what I've read so far, this version of the film may be every bit as good as Renny Harlin's eleventh-hour reshoot was awful. I honestly never expected this version of the film to see any big screen time at all, despite the franchise's fan base clamoring, so news of its 110-screen limited release was a pleasant surprise.

The series' two previous 'sequels' (as well as the Harlin prequel) withered in the long shadow cast by the gory and psychologically complex 1974 Exorcist; unfortunately producers of the subsequent films seemed to recall only the original's grue and profanity, but precious little of its depth. Schrader - best known for dark, intelligent movies like Taxi Driver, The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ - seemed like the ideal director for the "serious" opener to the series, examining young Father Merrin's (Stellan Skarsgard) post-World War II crisis of faith, and his first encounters with demonic possession in Africa. Roger Ebert says:
A milestone in movie history. Same premise, same hero, same leading actor, two directors, two completely different visions. Not a "director's cut" but a different director and a different film.

Schrader's "Exorcist Prequel" is not a conventional horror film, but does something risky and daring: It takes evil seriously. There really are dark Satanic forces in the Schrader version, which takes a character forever scarred by the Holocaust and asks if he can ever again believe in the power of God. The movie is drenched in atmosphere and dread, boldly confronting the possibility that Satan is active in the world. Instead of cheap thrills, Schrader gives us a frightening vision of a good priest (Stellan Skarsgard) who fears goodness may not be enough.

After Schrader delivered this version, the studio apparently found it too complex and intelligent, although those of course were not the words they used, and not scary enough. Well, it seems scary to me. They commissioned a different version by Renny Harlin, unseen by me because it was not screened for the press (never a good sign). He replaced three of the four key actors, although not Skarsgard, and produced a work that clanged in at 11 percent on the Tomatometer.

Then the studio decided to release this original version. Schrader, whose screenplays for "Taxi Driver," "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" and directorial achievements like "Hardcore" and "The Comfort of Strangers" reveal a deep obsession with the war between good and evil, was the right director, and this is a film that works. Those who have seen the earlier version, may find the two films instructive as an illustration of the gulf between a personal vision and a multiplex product.
The LA Times reveals the - how shall we say, unusual - marketing strategy of "The Exorcist v4.2" (if truth be told, Harlin's should have been the real v4.2):
"Dominion" will be distributed by Warner Bros. and hits theaters the same weekend as the hotly anticipated "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" — a risky but strategic counter-programming plan.

The strategy also poses an unusual marketing dilemma for Morgan Creek. In marketing two versions of the same movie, is it better to emphasize the films' shared lineage? Or their differences? "Therein lies the problem," said Brian Robinson. "How do you make them so they're related but show their differences in a 30-second TV spot?"

Morgan Creek's marketing campaign for the movie is still being finalized, but tentative plans exist to use a blurb from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert that pays tribute to the Schrader version while also distinguishing it from the Harlin version of the film.
Roger Ebert's preview of Paul Schrader's Exorcist: Dominion
Exorcist: Dominion preview on The Bloody News


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