Now, some three decades after they fired shots in a revolution that now feels like ancient history, they pull into cinemas carrying prequels to 1970s benchmarks -- Schrader's, the origin story of a doomed hero (The Exorcist's Father Merrin); Lucas', of course, revealing how a whiny brat named Anakin became an asthmatic monster named Vader. Lucas returns victorious, a billionaire with one more cash machine left in him, while Schrader limps into theaters a wounded soldier seeking only pride, retribution, and salvation. Not only is he in need of redemption after the disappointing Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus and the direct-to-cable debacle that was 1999's overlooked Forever Mine, but he's also out to prove wrong the studio bosses who humiliated him by snatching away his Exorcist prequel and giving it to one of the worst directors still getting work.
If you do not know the story, here it is in brief: After execs at Morgan Creek saw a rough cut of Schrader's movie, they so disliked its proselytizing tone and pedestrian look that they brought in Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, the new Mindhunters) to direct, hired a new writer, and even brought in an almost entirely different cast to reshoot from scratch what was essentially a finished film. But Harlin's 2004 actionless action flick, titled Exorcist: The Beginning, tanked; Schrader and writer Caleb Carr screamed bloody murder (at each other, occasionally); and finally the director was allowed to recut and release his own version. And so, here we are. Why? Not even the accountants can know for sure.
Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist -- which has been known by such cumbersome and confusing titles as Exorcist: The Original Prequel and Paul Schrader's Exorcist: The Beginning -- is the film this lapsed Calvinist was meant to make. What better project can there be for a man who was taught that theaters are dens of iniquity than a movie that takes place in an African temple built to capture a demon? If only the rest of Dominion made as much sense -- and, for that matter, if only there were an explicable reason for the release of a picture that's hamstrung not only by a dopey plot, but also by some truly frightening acting and the worst special effects this side of 1975. (The computer-generated devil dogs look as though they were made on a Commodore 64.) How this didn't go direct to DVD, or Betamax, is the movie's biggest mystery.
Since this critic has never seen Harlin's version, because life is just too short, this review will not be a game of compare and contrast. Schrader's is lousy all by its lonesome -- chatty when it wants to pretend it's deep and spiritual, messy when it's striving for chaotic and thrilling, boring when it has no other options left. Only Stellan Skarsgård, in the role of Father Lankester Merrin (originated by Max von Sydow in William Friedkin's 1972 original) and one of the only cast members common to both prequels, seems to be engaged in the proceedings. As a man of faith who witnessed, and blames himself for, an atrocity committed by a Nazi officer during the war, Merrin carries on his shoulders such guilt and shame that their weight seems to make him a foot shorter.
But Skarsgård is surrounded by a cast of pros behaving like acting-school amateurs, including Gabriel Mann as true-believer Father Francis, Clara Bellar as the nurse who wants to save more than Merrin's soul, and Billy Crawford as Cheche, a horribly deformed young man whose injuries are healed when he's possessed by You Know Who. The movie goes nowhere for about an hour, then finally turns into a superhero story when Merrin dons his holy togs for the first of his two rounds with the devil -- who, in this case, looks like a 30-year-old bald baby in a diaper and is as easy to defeat as Muhammad Ali was in the fall of 1980. It ain't scary, just silly as hell.