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?


Our Guest Blogger - Mr. James Caswell (storyboard artist and film buff)

The reason to choose Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch as a maverick film is obvious. To beat the wild horse metaphor, it moved away from the herd to revolutionize the Western into the seventies. It is telling that The Wild Bunch was out the same year as Wayne’s True Grit. One formulaic, predictable, and because of Wayne, iconic; the other a radical rethink of heroes and honourable behaviour in the West. (I think even Unforgiven owes a debt to The Wild Bunch.) Westerns were always morality plays. Good vs. evil. Black hats vs. white. But the Wild Bunch introduces the ambiguity of moral authority into the genre.

The movie begins with a group of children-a mixture of races and classes but the majority are town folks or representative of modern times- laughing at two trapped scorpions being overwhelmed by ants. This metaphor travels through the movie. The Bunch are being overwhelmed; caught up in forces of change they can’t escape. They looking for a way out. A last big score will set them up in Mexico but always eludes them.

In the opening gunfight, the Bunch is trapped in the town with no clean exit. They dive to and fro to escape like the scorpions. The slow motion violence got most of the attention at the time but it is the editing that really demonstrates the futility of their struggle. The whole sequence is a jumble of where they are, who’s shooting who, and the way Modernity-the bounty hunters, the citizens and especially the physical town- have hemmed them in.

The bounty hunters -Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones- are representations of how the West has changed. They are scavengers picking over the bodies of the people in the street and fighting over credit for kills. Their leader, Deke Slaiton (Robert Ryan) used to be a member of the Bunch, but was caught and turned. He shows his disgust with his new comrades in arms. “I gotta work with this!’ Again the theme of the passing of an honourable way to do things.

Like the theme of Peckinpah’s first film, the excellent Ride the High Country, the old moral codes of the West are being replaced by modern ways. There is no place for men to do what they were good at (fighting Indians, rustlers, etc.) The jobs of being moral authority by virtue of their character-their righteousness- rather than their station in society has gone. This is well demonstrated by Pike Bishop (William Holden.) Holden brings his legacy as a leading man to the role. He’s on the down side of his career as a matinee idol and visibly shows the weariness that his character feel. He’s tired of doing another robbery (movie) and is looking for a respite (real role) to go out on. He plays the moral outrage of what the world has become. (He does this again in Network later in the seventies.) Bishop and the Bunch are not heroes as in previous Westerns. They are bad guys doing bad things. They are honourable to each other and are betrayed by those who no longer can adhere to their moral code.

After the disaster of Major Dundee, the studios wouldn’t hire him and he spent four years without making a movie. With the Wild Bunch, Peckinpah stands up for what he sees in happening to the Western and filmmaking. He paints a picture of righteousness denied, frustration at the failure from the way things are going, and a decline in how things should be done . While he did do a number of good but flawed films after, The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s last big score.



Orson Welles

"The maverick may go his own way, but he doesn't think that it is the only way, or even claim that it is the best way... except maybe for himself. And don't imagine that this raggle-taggle gypsy-o is claiming to be free. It's just that some of the necessities to which I am a slave are different than yours."

I can't help but think that Orson Welles would have loved digital cinema and the movement to High Definition. Most people know Orson Welles for his masterpiece 'Citizen Kane'. It was one of the few studio pictures Welles would make and one of the few times he had the kind of financial resources required to achieve his magnificent vision.

'Citizen Kane' was the Albatross they hung around Orson Welles' neck. It was a work of such grand scale and vision that there was no way to live up to it. So much so that in 1971, the famous critic Pauline Kael tried to pin the artistic success of the film on the script's co-author Herman J. Mankiewicz. She wrote that Welles didn't contribute to the shooting script and tried to take credit away from Mankiewicz. Her essay, 'Raising Kane', was later refuted by Peter Bogdanovich but remains a good example of how much 'Citizen Kane' shadowed Welles his entire career.

Yet, for me, it is that tag of 'genius' that pushed Welles out of the studio system. The twenty four year old 'boy wonder' and 'genius' had gone out to California and was given a contract that was unheard of for any of the established journey-men filmmakers of the day. Complete control. Of course this caused a sharp hatred and jealousy of Welles in the film community and was compounded by the immense ego and combativeness of the young genius himself. When you get that big that fast, most people want to see you fail and fail miserably. With 'Kane', Welles proved himself to be a prodigious talent and it wasn't until his second picture, 'The Magnificent Ambersons' that he started his steep decline and eventual exile from Hollywood (or if I might paraphrase the motion picture itself - Georgey got his comeuppance).

Legend has it that the original cut of 'Ambersons' was indeed 'magnificent' but the studio made the blunder of doing an audience test screening and placing it after a bright and cheerful musical. Out of 125 comment cards 72 didn't appreciate the film. At over two hours running time, the audience felt it was too long (remember that they just sat through a musical) and some of the quotes were 'the worst picture I ever saw', 'people like to laff, not be bored to death', 'could not understand it, Too many plots', 'it stinks', 'rubbish' etc. On the other side of the fence the comments were 'this picture is magnificent', 'a masterpiece with perfect photography, setting and acting', 'I liked it but feel that it was above the audience', 'exceedingly good picture', 'I think it was the best picture I have ever seen' etc. It seems to echo a major problem/strength of any Orson Welles picture - it was too smart for the regular ball-cap Joe. He was an art-house filmmaker but was given such great resources and control and they eventually realized that he wasn't a commercially viable filmmaker. He was a personal filmmaker - an artist with artistic ambitions (whether or not he himself realized it).

Even Welles attempts at making commercial films turned out to be somewhat impossible. 'The Lady from Shanghai' is a terrific noir thriller but wasn't successful at the box office. Try as he might, Welles made the film with an odd story structure and some exremely memorable bravura filmmaking (the house of mirrors, the rendevous at the aquarium etc). In the 1950's he made his last studio-financed picture 'Touch of Evil'. Called 'the greatest b-movie ever made', Touch of Evil failed to get support from the studio and audiences. Ironically, Welles only financially successful movie was 'The Stranger' and it is his least enjoyable film. Not that 'The Stranger' is a bad film, it just follows a fairly paint-by-numbers approach that makes it easily digestible but also fairly forgettable.

Going into exile, Welles became one of the first great film Mavericks, financing his own productions through acting jobs and raising finances from independant sources. The great 'Othello' was shot over four years and released in 1952 to great critical acclaim. It won Best Picture at Cannes but failed to find success. This lead to several films made in europe: 'The Trial', 'Mr. Arkadin', 'Chimes at Midnight' and his experimental documentary 'F for Fake'. Of course none of these films made much money and the financing was so convoluted, many of these films were unavailable until recently. They have sorted out most of the rights issues and there are wonderful Criterion DVD's of 'F for Fake' and 'Mr. Arkadin'. 'Chimes at Midnight' is still very difficult to find and is considered one of his greatest films. This seems somewhat appropriate given the troubled and complicated history of Orson Welles.

It is a terrible shame that Welles had such a hard time getting his films made. He laments in the BBC documentary 'Orson Welles' that he probably would have been better to have stayed in Radio and Theatre. Film is ninety-eight percent hustle, he said, and two percent actually getting to do it. Yet Welles stands out in film history as one of the greatest of filmmakers. It is our lament that we only got to see him realize a small degree of his potential.