|Starring: Stellan Skarsgard, Garbiel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford, Ralph Brown
Director: Paul Schrader
Year Of Release: 2005
Plot: Father Lankester Merrin has lost his faith (or is at least having a massive crisis of faith) after his terrible experiences in Holland during World War II, and heads off to an archaeological dig in Africa while he decides his future. They dig up an ancient church which seems to have been buried in the sand almost as soon as it was completed. As they delve further into the mystery, they realise the church was built on top of something else, which leads Merrin to his first encounter with the demon he will later meet again 30 years later, when it possesses young Regan MacNeill.
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Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist is far more interesting for the story behind it than for the actual movie. In 2001 the production company Morgan Creek decided they wanted to make a prequel to The Exorcist, feeling there was still enough interest in the franchise to draw fans, and that if they could make it gory enough, itd bring in younger horror groupies as well.
John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) signed on to direct, and a script was commissioned. The first drama came in July 2002, when Frankenheimer dropped out of the production only a month before he died of a stroke due to complications following spinal surgery (the alleged Exorcist curse striking again?). Not wanting to give up on the idea, Morgan Creek looked around for another director, and wanting to stick with the idea of hiring an older filmmaker with plenty of experience under his belt they went for Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and also directed the likes of American Gigolo and Auto Focus.
From early on, Schrader said publicly how he wanted to make a movie that was more psychological thriller than full-on gore-fest, suggesting the studio was onboard with what he had planned. He proceeded to make just that, with Stellan Skarsgard in the lead role, Gabriel Mann as a young priest and Clara Bellar as a nurse. Everything seemed to be going fine until after shooting was complete and he assembled a rough cut, which was screened it for the Morgan Creek execs.
The money men were so unimpressed by the film that they promptly fired Schrader and announced they were bringing in Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Seas) to replace him. Quite why this happened isnt fully known, with Schrader saying the problem was it was “footage without any of the bloody violence the backers had wanted”, while there were also suggestions that Morgan Creek viewed Schraders movie as completely unmarketable. However that alone is unlikely to have led to his departure. Its probably that if hed agreed to make the changes the studio wanted, which probably would have involved adding a lot more gore to appeal to the youth crowd, he could have kept his job. However it seems Schrader refused point blank to make any alterations. Indeed he can be a rather ornery figure who tends to believe he knows best and that Hollywood is artistically bankrupt and all about destroying filmmakers with vision (like himself, of course and he rarely countenances the notion that he may not be the genius he seems to think he is).
The other question is how it got to the point where the movie was pretty much in the can before the problems surfaced so spectacularly. Surely Morgan Creek must have realised what Schrader was doing from the screenplay, and they must also have seen the rushes and realised they werent very gory, but for some reason it wasnt until the whole thing was put together that they got really upset.
Whatever the breaking point was, Schrader was out and suddenly Renny Harlin was in – a director who couldnt have been more different than the Taxi Driver director. However after several years without a hit, Harlin was likely to be far more malleable to studio demands making him a good choice from their perspective and was a far more commercial director anyway.
While this isnt the first time a movie has seen a new director step in after principal photography ended and the studio wasnt satisfied with the results, what was particularly unusual in this case is the scale of what Morgan Creek did. Normally a new director would shoot a few new scenes, and then the editor would put it all together in a way the studio was happy with, but without the permission or input from the original director (which is what normally has happened when directors ask to have their name removed from the credits, and get it replaced by something like Alan Smithee). However Morgan Creek had something far larger in mind. Although theyd already paid out $30 million for a complete film (barring some special effects and post-production work), they pretty much started over once Harlin came onboard, with new writers brought in to completely overhaul the project.
Things were further complicated by the fact that neither Gabriel Mann nor Clara Bellar were available for the reshoots, meaning that their entire roles, which were pretty large, had to be reshot with James DArcy and Izabella Scorupco stepping into the parts. Stellan Skarsgard meanwhile was contractually obliged to come back, and even though he apparently wasnt that impressed with the new direction of the movie, he had to shoot it.
The result was less a new cut than a completely different film, with Morgan Creek needing to spend another $20 million reshooting 90% on the movie, not only adding in lots of guts and gore, but also completely overhauling the plot and structure, making it far more straightforward and less metaphysical.
That would have probably been the end of the story, with Schraders version disappearing into the movie trivia depths of unseen films and cuts of movies that are buried in studio vaults. However the original director kept championing the film, partly as a way to bash Hollywood (which has become his favourite pastime), turning it into a bit of a legend even before Harlins version was seen.
When Morgan Creek brought out their preferred Renny Harlin cut of the film as Exorcist: The Beginning, it was met with almost universal derision and far lower box office than theyd hoped for. Schrader stepped up his campaign of talking about how superior his version was and how the studio had basically shot itself in the foot by trying to pander to the younger crowd. Even though no one had seen it, it became a cause celebre among some film fans; a totem with which they could bash Hollywood, with the suggestion being that Morgan Creek was actively preventing us from seeing a masterpiece, while they peddled tripe in its place.
As a compromise the studio said they might release Schraders version as a bonus feature on an eventual Exorcist prequel DVD, and to prepare for this they gave the director $35,000 to do some special effects and post-production work (which explains the somewhat shoddy CGI and inconsistent audio in the final film). Once hed done that, Schrader got permission to screen the movie at a couple of film festivals as Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist, with Morgan Creek now thinking that a small cinema release might help them recoup some of their investment in the disaster the film(s) had turned into, as well as silencing some of the criticism theyd received for firing Schrader in the first place.
To be honest the latter may have been the real reason, as when it did come out in US cinemas, they released it on only 110 screens, with absolutely no publicity budget. They also chose to bring it out the same weekend Star Wars: Episode III hit cinemas, ensuring only the dedicated heard it was out. Unsurprisingly it didnt do too well. However Dominion flopping wasnt just to do with the barely there release, but also that after Schrader had spent months building it up, most people were rather underwhelmed by the actual move. Although the reviews were slightly better than for Exorcist: The Beginning, they were nothing to write home about, with most complaining it was too slow and less clever that it seemed to think it was (for my money Harlins is actually the better film, because while neither is much good, at least that ones less boring).
Dominion was then released on DVD and in The Exorcist Anthology box set, which for the first time allowed people to judge Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion side by side in the same set, along with the other the Exorcist movies.
Its undoubtedly one of the strangest episodes in modern movie history, with nobody coming out of it looking particularly good. Schrader would probably have been better off if Dominion was locked up in the vault, as it would probably have achieved legendary status as an unseen masterpiece, and a totem for all that it wrong with Hollywood (especially as William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original Exorcist novel said he much preferred Schraders version, describing seeing Harlins film for the first time as being one of his most depressing professional experiences). However Dominion was revealed to be far less it had been billed, and showing that after tens of millions of dollars and getting two very different movies in the can, Morgan Creek would have probably been better off just leaving The Exorcist alone.
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