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'Exorcist' prequel won't turn your head

Paul Schrader's 'Dominion,' once shelved as another director's version was shot and released, is only marginally better.

May 20, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" may be advice film producers would be wise to ignore. After sinking a reported $40 million into a Paul Schrader-directed prequel to the 1973 horror hit "The Exorcist," Morgan Creek Chief Executive James Robinson shelved that version and brought in director Renny Harlin -- known as much for his duds ("Cutthroat Island," "Mindhunters") as his hits ("Die Hard 2," "Cliffhanger") -- to reshoot it at considerable expense. Harlin's film, titled "Exorcist: The Beginning," was released last August to poor reviews and negligible box office.

In an unusual move, Morgan Creek and the film's distributor, Warner Bros., are now releasing Schrader's film, "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," before it settles into ancillary perpetuity. It would be exciting to report that "Dominion" is a hidden gem rescued from beyond obscurity by a rare act of Hollywood humility.

Unfortunately that's not the case, as Schrader's version is only marginally better; and though the two directors' prior work could not be more different, both films fall into the category of instantly forgettable.

Schrader, the scholarly, acclaimed screenwriter of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" and director of "American Gigolo" and "Affliction," among other films, is the more subtle and complex filmmaker, and "Dominion" takes a more psychologically intricate path in exploring how a Dutch parish priest becomes an exorcist extraordinaire in 1947 British East Africa. The film, however, is marred by some of the same problems as Harlin's version -- namely, weak supporting characters, unintentionally funny dialogue and poorly executed special effects. William Wisher and Caleb Carr are the credited screenwriters on "Dominion" and received "story by" credit on "Beginning," which was rewritten by Alexi Hawley.

Stellan Skarsgard once again stars as Father Lankester Merrin, the role played by Max von Sydow in the original 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel. There are some major differences between the two prequels, key among them changes to the story and the recasting of the second and third leads. Gabriel Mann as Father Francis and Clara Bellar as Dr. Rachel Lesno were replaced in Harlin's version by James D'Arcy and Izabella Scorupco, respectively.

Schrader's film is also less bloody and significantly less scary, but more effective at rendering Merrin's metaphysical transformation from doubter to demon fighter.

The release of "Dominion" allows Schrader to get his version seen and counters the notion that it was an unreleasable failure, but more important, it illustrates the folly of Hollywood's practice of throwing good money after bad. Films are continually delayed in production and postproduction as producers and studios try to fix problems that should have been addressed at the script stage. Rarely does any amount of recasting or reshooting save a film at that point.


'Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist'

MPAA rating: R for strong violence and disturbing images

Times guidelines: Less disturbing imagery than "Exorcist: The Beginning," but definitely not for kids

James G. Robinson presents a Morgan Creek production, released by Warner Bros. Director Paul Schrader. Producer James G. Robinson. Executive producers Guy McElwaine, David Robinson. Screenplay by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. Director of photography Vittorio Storaro. Editor Tim Silano. Costume designer Luke Reichle. Music Trevor Rabin, Angelo Badalamenti. Production designer John Graysmark. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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