In Defense of the ‘Exorcist’ Prequels

Since I went back and watched the Exorcist sequels for last week’s column, it only felt right that I did the same and watched the Exorcist prequels this time. I’m officially an Exorcist super-fan at this point (What do we call ourselves? The Possessed? I’m open to suggestions). Each film, and the TV series (RIP), has been a distinct artistic entity unto itself. No two Exorcist films/series are the same. In the mid-2000s, we got two different prequels of the same story following Father Merrin, Max Von Sydow’s priest from the original. Both are kind of incredible in their own way, as both are totally their own versions. Schrader’s film is unquestionably a Schrader film, and Harlin’s film is unquestionably a Harlin film. And now, some history as to how we ended up with two different versions of the same film, and both of them distinct.

So originally John Frankenheimer was developing the prequel but pulled out a month before his death. Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, director of Affliction, Hardcore and this year’s remarkablel First Reformed) was brought on to helm the prequel. Stellan Skarsgard was cast as younger Father Merrin, and the film would focus on Merrin helping out on a dig in Africa a few years after WWII where they uncover a buried church that unleashes the evil he would come to know as Pazuzu. Schrader shot his version of the film, making it more of a psychological horror film. Morgan Creek, the production company, decided they didn’t like his film and hired Renny Harlin (Director of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger) to recast and reshoot the film. When Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning didn’t fare well at the box office or with critics, they decided to let Schrader release his cut of his film, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, to try to make some extra dough. Both of these films are incredibly different from each other despite having Skarsgard in each of them, both of them shot by cinematography legend Vittorio Storaro, and following largely the same plot. Two sides of the same coin. And both strangely succeed in what they are trying to be.

Dominion is very much a Paul Schrader film, driven by religious guilt and loss of faith. During WWII, Father Merrin is forced by the Nazis to pick 10 citizens of his parish to kill in retaliation for the murder of one of their guards or else the entire village dies. The sequence is stunningly shot by Storaro, with snow blowing in the set like ash from a volcano. Remember, this is the guy who shot Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, so he knows how to make it striking. Years later, he has lost his faith and carries the guilt of that incident with him while assisting in the archaeological dig. Skarsgard delivers a stoic performance, convincingly weighing himself down with the guilt and loss of faith in each interaction he has. The only true thing that holds back Schrader’s film is that it was the second option for the studio. They only gave him $35,000 for post-production and visual effects, and it shows. Any shot with visual effects is horrendous. There are intriguing visuals, such as cows eating hyenas then dying, that are undercut by terrible visual effects that cannot be hidden.

I really do admire what Schrader was trying to do in his film, he wanted to make a film about the evil and horror of man rather than one explicitly about a supernatural evil. Roger Ebert wrotePaul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist does something risky and daring in this time of jaded horror movies: It takes evil seriously. There really are dark satanic forces in the Schrader version, which takes a priest forever scarred by the Holocaust and asks if he can ever again believe in the grace of God. The movie is drenched in atmosphere and dread, as we’d expect from Schrader, but it also has spiritual weight and texture, boldly confronting the possibility that Satan may be active in the world. Instead of cheap thrills, Schrader gives us a frightening vision of a good priest who fears goodness may not be enough.” Schrader holds true to the theme of Friedkin’s original that the strongest faith can only be rediscovered in the face of true evil. We watched Father Karras have this arc in the original, and now Merrin has a similar one in the prequels. Schrader’s film is far from perfect, but admirable and beautiful in its imperfections, like a human.

Harlin’s film is a complete 180 from Schrader’s. Harlin was hired to essentially to sex it up, and delivers a truly bonkers film that is incoherent to follow but immensely entertaining. Exorcist: The Beginning may have been shot by Storaro as well, but it felt like it was shot by Jan De Bont. That’s not a knock on De Bont. I would never say anything bad about De Bont. What I’m getting at is that everything is turned up to 11 and shot at maximum camp and zeal. The final exorcism scene between Merrin and Pazuzu is shot like a bombastic fight scene in an action film. In Harlin’s version, Merrin is less a guilt-ridden priest on leave from the priesthood, and more of a renegade archaeologist. He’s dressed like Indiana Jones and has a killer 5 o’clock shadow. There’s a part where a kid gets ripped apart by hyenas (which are constructed via awful CGI) so Merrin grabs a shotgun and starts blowing them away. It’s as awesome as it sounds. The romance between him and Dr. Rachel Lesno, which was tame and more about connection in Schrader’s, is detailed in lust-driven scenes here. Thankfully, Skarsgard knows to play all of this for pure camp, like Richard Burton and George C. Scott in Exorcist films before him. A brief shoutout to how much ground Skarsgard covers in these films. He commits to two totally different takes on the character and makes each one riveting to watch. Has another actor pulled something like that off? Exorcist: The Beginning may be a bad film, but it sure as hell ain’t boring. Not one bit.

With the show over (RIP) unless God comes down with a righteous fury and rights this wrong by making somebody pick it up for a 3rd season, where does The Exorcist franchise go from here? A straight remake of the original would be blasphemy. I honestly don’t know how you make a fourth film from the previous sequels, what other source material is there to draw on? The show acted as a sequel in its first season before moving on to more bonkers storylines, but that’s over now. We’ve already covered Merrin’s earlier years in these prequels. Either way, I don’t want The Exorcist franchise to go away. Each entry has been its own bold take on the material, and I can’t say that about most franchises.

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