The story of the Exorcist prequel's journey to the screen is one of the more fascinating behind the scenes stories in horror filmmaking history. Why, you ask? Because there are actually two Exorcist prequels; two different versions of very much the same story, directed by two different filmmakers. How did this happen? Let's consult the timeline of events!
In 2002, John Frankenheimer was hired to direct a prequel to The Exorcist, which would tell the story of a young(er) Father Merrin's first encounter with the evil spirits that would eventually take his life. Unfortunately, Frankenheimer fell ill and was forced to leave the project, before it ever got off the ground. He died shortly thereafter, at the age of 72.
From there, Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader replaced Frankenheimer in the director's seat, and began work on the film. Just as it was about to be completed, and head into post-production, Morgan Creek Productions put the kibash on it, and decided to go in a bit of a different direction. From what I gather, they were unhappy with the psychological take on the material, and wanted it to play out more like a straight up horror film.
Enter Renny Harlin, the director of films such as Nightmare On Elm Street 4 and Die Hard 2. After Schrader was fired, Harlin was brought onto the project, and a new writer was also brought in, to re-tool the script that Schrader's movie was based on. Exorcist: The Beginning was born, amping up the gore and the horror elements of Schrader's version. Though many of the same sets and actors were re-used, the majority of the film was completely re-shot, and Exorcist: The Beginning was released into theaters in 2004.
So that film comes out, and it is widely panned by critics and fans alike. Even William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, expressed his hatred for the film. So what did Morgan Creek do? They gave Paul Schrader a call, and offered him the money needed to fully complete the film he had started, hopeful that they were wrong about their initial thoughts of his vision, and that his film was in fact the better of the two.
And so, the originally planned Exorcist prequel was released in 2005, one year after The Beginning, under the title Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist. Though not a huge success with critics, Dominion did receive a whole lot more positivity than The Beginning, and William Peter Blatty called it an "elegant piece of work", a stark contrast to his vitriolic thoughts about The Beginning.
And there you have it. Two Exorcist prequels, essentially the same as one another, only with far different tones. Which one is truly the best? It had been a while since I had seen either, so I decided to sit down last night and marathon the two of them, back to back, to make a definitive personal decision on the matter. It was a long night, needless to say.
So let's take a closer look at the two movies, and see who wins this battle to the death, in the Freddy In Space arena. FIGHT!
In both films, Father Merrin (played in both by Stellan Skarsgard) has lost his faith after witnessing the cold blooded execution of the residents of a small village, by the Nazis during World War 2. No longer seeing any use in being a priest, Merrin becomes an archaeologist, and takes on a job helping to dig up a church that has been discovered in Africa. It seems the church was buried as soon as it was built, and the locals believe that digging it up will unleash powerful demonic forces onto the land. Of course, no one listens to those silly locals and they dig it up anyway, and that's precisely what ends up happening. Merrin's faith is put to the ultimate test, and in the end he's left which no choice but to resume his duties as a priest.
At least, that's the general idea of both films, in a nutshell.
It's really interesting watching the two films back to back, because you essentially get to see two different filmmakers put their own spin on the same material, and the end results though similar, are also quite different, as dictated by the individual filmmaking styles of those directors. Whereas Schrader's is more of a slow burn thinking man's take on the material, Harlin's is more in line with the kinds of films he has been known to make; fun, fast paced and action packed. While I admit that any film bearing the Exorcist title should probably be more focused on the former, than the latter, it's nevertheless The Beginning that I prefer. A dumbed down version of the original script? I wouldn't argue with that. More entertaining and enjoyable to watch? By a long shot.
Though the general consensus amidst horror fans seems to be that Dominion is the superior Exorcist prequel, I couldn't possibly disagree any more with that opinion. I find Dominion to be incredibly dull, long winded and all around just plain boring, whereas The Beginning is a solid and entertaining horror film that I personally feel has never quite gotten the respect it deserves. I'm totally satisfied with that film bearing the title The Exorcist, and I am so very glad that Morgan Creek decided to give Schrader the axe, and bring in Harlin. Though you'd think they would've realized they didn't like the script BEFORE it was nearly finished filming...
Now the main argument against The Beginning is that its over the top spectacle driven nature results in it not feeling like a true prequel to the original Exorcist, while the slow burn approach of Schrader's fits the bill a bit better. To that I say, who the hell cares? Neither film is anywhere close to being as good as The Exorcist, and no film with that title, or with any other title, ever will be. I personally couldn't care less which one feels more like an Exorcist movie, all I'm concerned with when I sit down to watch a movie, ANY movie, is that I want to be entertained. I want to have a good time. Does an Exorcist movie need to be fun, the way a blood soaked slasher flick is fun? Absolutely not. But I'll take a fun movie over a boring one any day of the week, and therein lies the main reason I much prefer The Beginning over Dominion; it's actually enjoyable to watch. You can tell that they took a boring script and injected some life and entertainment factor in it, and that has never been more clear to me than it was last night, watching The Beginning right after enduring Dominion. It makes a world of difference.
Now the funny thing is that even though the tone of The Beginning is perhaps less Exorcist-y than the tone of Dominion, I personally feel that The Beginning actually feels more like an Exorcist prequel than Dominion does. So suck on that one. The script for Dominion is more focused on the idea of Merrin coming to terms with what he witnessed in the war, and the idea of faith as a whole (both its destructive and healing powers). For the first hour and a half of the film, there's really no demonic force even present, and even when the evil is unleashed from the church, over an hour into the film, it's only one weird little crippled boy who's affected by it, and he never even comes off as that much of a threat.
The character is laughably goofy, as he looks like Mister Peepers from Saturday Night Live, and then turns into a weird bald androgynous creature that runs around in a diaper, once he becomes possessed. You never even get the sense that Merrin's life is in danger, which kinda kills the whole idea of the prequel being based on that one line from The Exorcist, where they mention that Merrin exorcised a demon years prior to the events of that film, which nearly took his life. It's all just very lame, and by the time the demonic presence rears its ugly head, it kinda feels like it belongs in a different movie.
In The Beginning, on the other hand, you really get the sense that the archaeological dig has stirred up one seriously evil demonic force, as all hell literally breaks loose in the African village. Not only are little kids killed in the World War 2 flashback scenes (which is not the case in Dominion), but once the evil gets unleashed, the body count rises pretty damn high, capped off by a seriously awesome battle scene where the British army and the villagers start killing each other, but then turn the knives and guns on their own men, consumed by the evil power of Pazuzu. The Beginning is a much more vicious film all around, as any film dealing with Satan's return to Earth should be.
I would. Would you?
As for the final Merrin vs demon battle, it's a female that gets possessed in The Beginning, rather than Mister Peepers, and she goes full Linda Blair for the final twenty minutes of the film, spouting sexually charged dialogue and crawling up, down and around the walls of the church. Not only does she look like Regan, but it actually feels like the same demon that possessed her in The Exorcist, which again makes this one to me feel more like a fitting prequel to that film.
The Beginning ends with Merrin putting back on his priest garb and walking towards the church, bag in hand, in a nice little moment that recreates his iconic silhouette from The Exorcist. So yea, that was cool, and was absent from Dominion.
Again, the bottom line here is that I find The Beginning to be fun, while Dominion just plain bores me. And that's really all there is to it. I like a slow burn horror film as much as the next guy, and I don't need gore a minute for a horror film to entertain me, but Dominion is just far too dull for my liking, an attempt to turn an Exorcist prequel into something more than an Exorcist prequel. I appreciate the effort, but the end result is far more boring than it is compelling or interesting.
What say you? Which Exorcist prequel do you prefer; Dominion or The Beginning? Sound off below!
Oh and for the record, both films suffer from piss poor CGI, particularly in the animals department. So shame on both of you, for that. Kinda funny that people criticize The Beginning for the shoddy CGI, when Dominion is just as guilty, in that department!