The Same Yet Very Different

This past Halloween I was reminded of the strange story of 'The Excorcist' prequel. I remembered when it came out there was some controversy but the film was released and then disappeared into oblivion. The controversy surrounded the films first director Paul Schrader. Schrader, the famous writer of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' was directing a script by 'Caleb Carr' and 'William Wisher'. Carr is a renowned novelist and Wisher had co-written 'Terminator 2' and 'The 13th Warrior' (among other less successful ventures). Schrader cast Stellen Skarsgard as Father Merrin and hired the incomparable cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

I'm not sure what transpired from script to screen but when Schrader handed in his edit they hated the film. Then, in an unprecedented move, they fired Schrader, hired Renny Harlin and they reshot the film. Reshot the film. They didn't reshoot parts of the film, they reshot it. They started with a new script based on Wishers and Carrs and started fresh. They recast some of the parts but kept Skarsgard and used Storaro to shoot the new material. Imdb reports that Harlin reshot over ninety percent of the film.

As you might expect they are two very different films. One look at the directors filmographies you can guess why. Harlin made his success on second-rate action films like 'Deep Blue Sea', 'Cliffhanger' and 'Cutthroat Island' (don't get me started about that one). Schrader made his success with the aforementioned films in addition to writing and directing some hardcore dramas like 'Affliction'. The studio wanted a marketable film with jolts and gore while Schrader was actually interested in the character and dilemma of Father Merrin.

I caught Harlins version on the television one night and decided to hunt down Schraders version which had been in a limited release following the box office disappointment of 'The Exorcist: The Beginning'. Schraders version was titled 'The Exorcist: Dominion'. What is fascinating for the viewer of these films is that although similar, are two totally different films. Schraders version had put the emphasis on Merrin who had lost his faith during the war. He was forced by the Nazis to choose ten men for execution in retribution for a murdered soldier. He was to give them ten names or they would execute them all. Merrin chooses and is rattled with guilt and remorse and loses his faith. After the war Merrin, an archeologist, is sent to a site in Africa where they have unearthed a church, buried in the sand. Upon excavation they slowly realize the church was built over a place of evil, presumably to keep it at bay. The town is occupied by British troops and contains a thematic element of another kind of evil - colonialism. The character who becomes possessed is a young man named Cheche, an innocent deformed simpleton whom the locals deride. Merrin and his quasi-love interest/friend, a nurse, tries to help heal the young man. After a surgery, Cheche starts to heal at a rapid rate as his body starts to become possessed. As all hell breaks loose, two soldiers are murdered at the church (while stealing some precious items) and the local tribesmen are blamed. Cheche becomes possessed, the colonial oppressors are driven to madness and Merrin must confront his beliefs and exorcise the demons (his own and the actual).

Dominion is an interesting film but not a great film. Harlins version changes the possession of Cheche to a young local boy and turns up the volume on the horror and symbolism. He erradicates the colonial subplot, shrinks the Nazi flashbacks and recasts the Nurse into a much hotter gal. I found it to be pretty much unwatchable full of manipulative scares and hokey iconography. The church is turned into a goofy production set with upside down crosses and other silly imagery (and some terrible cgi effects).

I can't help but think that those who seek to cash in on 'The Exorcist' haven't actully watched it. Despite all the memorable creepy bits and the actual exorcism, the film is actually quite dramatic and quiet. Schrader, like Friedkin, is interested in the concept of faith and the devil. Father Karras, the protagonist in the original, was having a crisis of faith. There is plenty of drama in the original revolving around Karras' dying mother and the sickness of young Regan. It wasn't wall to wall head spinning and pea soup spewing. Some of the creepiest moments are Regan peeing herself in front of the dinner guests and the spinal tap sequence. It was much more of a psychological thriller than an all out horror film. Certainly the climax was memorable for it's effects and gore but that wasn't what the film was about. Schrader understood this and sought to do something similar with his prequel. It's fascinating that the producers and distibutors couldn't make that connection and have convinced themselves that 'The Exorcist' was somehow on the same footing as 'Nightmare on Elm Street'.

As a post script, another film that shared this sort of treatment was Terry Gilliams 'Brazil'. The Criterion Collection released a box set of 'Brazil' that included an entirely seperate version call the 'Love Conquers All' version. Unlike the Exorcist sequels, this version of 'Brazil' was not reshot but was edited into a much more linear and commercial version by the studio. Gilliam had final cut so he was able to release his version but the revised film still exists and can be seen in the Crierion DVD's. For anyone interested in the power of the editor, you should really take a look at these two films as they use the exact same footage but with much different results. Gilliams version clocks in at 142 minutes while the 'Love' version was trimmed to a standard 94 minutes. Recommended for any fan of Gilliam or any student of film.

Poor Roger Ebert - totally taken out of context. Yes, he did like the film but he wasn't praising it as some kind of 'Milestone' of creation as they suggest. Damn marketers - half truths or half lies?

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