Exorcising the past: Schrader’s ‘Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist’ (2005) is so tame that Pazuzu comes off as a good guy (Movie review)

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t’s an excellent month for an exorcism. From Oct. 21-31, I’m looking back at the five films of “The Exorcist” series as we celebrate Spooky Month here at Cold Bananas. Wrapping it up is the last film, “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” (2005):

“Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” was cannibalized for parts to form the official prequel, “Exorcist: The Beginning” (2004), but it was nonetheless considered good enough to be released to the public in its original form, too. So “Exorcist” die-hards get to pick their own prequel – but I pick the other one. “Good enough to be released” is not the same as “good,” as it turns out. Despite coming from an all-star trio – director Paul Schrader (writer of “Taxi Driver”) and writers William Wisher (the first two “Terminators”) and Caleb Carr (author of the “Alienist” books) – “Dominion” starts off mediocre and stays that way.

Schrader’s attempt at sober daylight horror is not as inept as “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” but it’s almost harder to watch and offers fewer talking points. It’s technically competent yet dull. You’ll know where the story is going the whole way as Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) accidentally frees and then battles the demon Pazuzu in the desert.

At the same time, it’s hard to fit this prequel into the continuity. In the original “Exorcist,” we see Merrin (Max von Sydow) dig up a Pazuzu trinket and statue, and in “Exorcist II’s” flashback story, we see him performing an exorcism of Pazuzu. This adventure seems unrelated to those two, yet it also involves Pazuzu.

“Dominion’s” story is never surprising, but what’s worse is that there’s no sense of mood, and we don’t get a good fright, even of the jump-scare variety. Indeed, Pazuzu doesn’t even seem all that evil.

In the abstract, there are a few neat things worth noting. Merrin is the type of morose priest we’ve come to expect from this series, but here we get a strikingly legitimate reason for him to go through life that way. In the film’s opening flashback, he points out 10 villagers to be murdered by Nazis as a way to save the community from being slaughtered in its entirety. He wonders if there would’ve been a way for him to overpower the Nazis, or perhaps if allowing the wholesale slaughter would’ve been the more moral, Christian approach.

And instead of digging up a mere statue, Merrin oversees the uncovering of a whole temple, which was built and then immediately buried. Pazuzu’s chambers are below it, so this was the ancient Christians’ ways of keeping the demon trapped. This is some good “Indiana Jones”-style stuff with a dark religious overlay.

I like the main good guys. Merrin doesn’t want to be here – or anywhere – but he’s not phoning in this investigation and exorcism, nor is Skarsgard. The heroes are rounded out by Clara Bellar as nurse Rachel – with whom Merrin has a spark (although as a priest, it can only go so far) — and versatile character actor Gabriel Mann as the younger Father Francis. Billy Crawford, helped by prosthetics, plays Cheche, a young village outcast with crooked limbs who is perhaps being targeted for possession by Pazuzu.

“Exorcist II’s” out-of-left-field introduction of Pazuzu’s ability to appear as a noncorporeal copy of a real person features in the climax here. So if we want to be generous, that’s something for the plus column of that maligned film.

“Dominion’s” story is never surprising, but what’s worse is that there’s no sense of mood, and we don’t get a good fright, even of the jump-scare variety. Indeed, Pazuzu doesn’t even seem all that evil. He gives Merrin peace of mind by showing him that he could not have saved those 10 people he condemned to death. And his healing of Cheche holds up even after he’s banished. The only people he directly kills are corrupt British soldiers.

“Exorcist” I and III effectively use mood, “Exorcist II” makes the odd decision to try for an uplifting religious vibe wherein God is more of a presence than Satan, and “Exorcist: The Beginning” is mainstream modern horror. But in “Dominion,” there’s an absence of mood, a rote flatness. Schrader is professionally committed but not creatively absorbed. He gets the “daylight” part of “daylight horror” right – we get crystal-clear looks at the church and caverns – but not the “horror” part.

Although it only happens in a few spots, the bottom-of-the-barrel CGI work further hampers “Dominion’s” legitimacy. Obviously, these sub-SyFy Channel shots were done as cheaply as possible to make Schrader’s cut complete for release, but they are distracting, including a CGI snake coming out of a sarcophagus and a CGI bull eating a CGI hyena.

Along the same lines, “Dominion” doesn’t look historic enough overall. It’s set in 1947, but the crisp image makes it seem newer than the stories that take place after it. It’s set in the dusty and dirty past, but the characters are rarely dusty or dirty, even in situations where they should be. “Dominion” is clean, tame and – the worst offense for an “Exorcist” film – totally safe. This alternative prequel has more value as a curiosity for “Exorcist” die-hards (and people interested in the process of repurposing a completed film into a new one) than it does as a piece of entertainment.

Schedule of “Exorcist” reviews:

Wednesday, Oct. 21: “The Exorcist” (1973)

Friday, Oct. 23: “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977)

Wednesday, Oct. 28: “The Exorcist III” (1990)

Friday, Oct. 30: “Exorcist: The Beginning” (2004)

Saturday, Oct. 31: “Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist” (2005)

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