In order to understand just what exactly this movie is, a little back story is probably necessary. A few years ago, director Paul Schrader (director of Hardcore and writer of Taxi Driver) was brought on board at Warner Brothers to helm what was to be the fourth film in the Exorcist franchise. The film was to be a prequel and it would tell the story of what happened to Father Merrin when he was in Africa and fill us in on the events that are hinted at in William Friedkin's original film.
Schrader went off and made his movie, but when the suits at Warner Brothers/Morgan Creek got their first chance to check it out, they were not at all impressed with the direction that Schrader had taken the story. His was a very dark and very thought provoking film and it would seem that the studio wanted a more commercially viable option, one that was, for lack of a nastier term, dumbed down a bit for broader mass appeal with more blood and gore to satiate what the studio likely considered the typical horror movie crowd. To get what they wanted out of their investment, Warner Brothers hired Finnish action movie director Renny Harlin (of Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island), to shoot some new material, re-cut the movie, and basically, in this reviewers opinion, turn it into a dumb action horror movie. The reception, both at the box office and in terms of critical acclaim, to Harlin's film was unimpressive and seeing as they already had a finished film from Schrader, Warner Brothers opted to give Schrader's film a chance and now we have it on DVD.
The film begins when a younger Father Lankaster Merrin (Lars von Trier regular, Stellan Skarsgard) is in his native Holland, currently under Nazi occupation. A Nazi soldier has been found dead and now the commanding officer has got the townspeople lined up to answer for it. He asks Merrin to save the majority of them by pointing out to him the murderer – after all, he should know as he takes confession from everyone in town. Merrin refuses, and instead of killing the one man responsible for it, the Nazis shoot a woman in cold blood, forcing Merrin to pick nine more people from the population of the town to die.
Skip ahead a few years and Merrin finds himself assigned to an archeological dig in South Africa. The events that took place in Holland have shaken his faith pretty hard, and he's not the optimistic young man of God that he used to be. The Church teams him up with a young priest named Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) where they work with the natives out of a local mission. The dig unveils a gorgeous old building that looks like an antiquated Catholic Church, but once Merrin and Francis explore a little more, the find that there's a chamber underneath that was once used as a sacrificial ceremonial chamber to an evil deity of ancient lore.
While the priests are trying to figure out what to make out of the discovery, tensions are growing between the occupying British army forces and the natives. While some natives have converted to Christianity, many of them resent having a religion different then their own presented to them and because of this, the two opposing parties don't always get along. When two would be bandits in the employ of the Queen wind up dead inside the uncovered church, the army is hell-bent on punishing the natives who did it despite the fact that Merrin insists that given the nature of the Christian symbolism behind the killings, it wasn't one of them.
To complicate matters, a young man who was unfortunately born a crippled named Cheche (Billy Crawford) has been taken into the mission hospital to recover from a beating. His recovery is speedy and Francis believes it to be a miracle, evidence of God's hand working in Africa. Merrin isn't so sure, and neither is Rachel (Clara Bellar), the Jewish doctor who works alongside the priests. Merrin will soon find out what it is exactly that's causing the changes in Cheche, and when he does, what he learns will affect him for the rest of his life.
Dominion is a much smarter, tense film than Renny Harlin's version. Harlin's had it's moments – there were some good jump scares, some genuine moments of tension, and considerably more traditional horror movie elements in there but it felt empty – Schrader's film is anything but. It is definitely a slower film and it's not as traditionally horrific as Harlin's, but it is a much smarter story that gets into your head and sticks with you a bit as opposed to the disposable shocks of the alternate version. There are also some huge differences in terms of not only how the story plays out but also in terms of what characters are involved (there are some that are in Schrader's version that aren't in Harlin's at all and vice versa) and to what extent their involvement affects the out come. The character development that happens in this film is stronger and more human, the opening scene with the Nazi executions plays out differently and because of that does a better job of explaining where Merrin is at once he gets to Africa, and the subplot with Father Francis is a nice contrast to Merrin's story (and one that was more or less left out of Harlin's film completely). The way that the story points involving Major Granville in this version also make a lot more sense and are handled with a much stronger sense of realism here than in the other movie.
The biggest flaw in the film is in the special effects. There are some extremely noticeable moments where very poor CGI rendering takes you right out of the atmosphere that the film creates and most of the time, it could have been avoided. The more obvious instances involve a snake and some hyenas – why real animals weren't used here is a mystery, because the fake ones look like just that – fake animals.
Other than that, Schrader turns in a very mature and subtle supernatural movie that doesn't really function on the same level as Harlin's flashier go for the gore approach. Both movies work for different reasons, but this one will stick with you longer and make you think about the concepts of true good and evil and the concepts of faith and the existence of God – something Harlin's film doesn't even try to do.
The anamorphic 1.85.1 progressive scan transfer from Warner Brothers is a very solid effort with a couple of tiny flaws. There aren't any mpeg compression artifacts but you'll probably notice some edge enhancement along the lines of the church when it's first uncovered. There's also a bit more print damage than you might expect to see on such a recent film – don't get me wrong, it's hardly riddled with damage or anything like that but there are definitely some specks that show up here and there. Color reproduction looks very good and the black levels stay nice and strong. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and there's a decent level of fine detail present throughout the presentation although a little bit of it does tend to get a bit lost in the darker scenes. Overall though, this is a nice effort and all of the above complaints are minor ones.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track on this release is great. The movie has a very clever soundscape, it doesn't shock you with jump scares or loud, over the top action scenes but instead builds fairly slowly, just like the film itself. When it's called for though, this track completely delivers and there's plenty of distinct channel separation and nice use of the surrounds here, especially during the last thirty minutes of the film when things start getting really strange. Dialogue is clean and clear, there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion, and aside from one or two instances where the bass could have been a tad stronger, this mix is solid. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish and there is also an English language closed captioning option included.
The main extra feature on this release comes in the form of a feature length commentary track with director Paul Schrader. While the information in this discussion is pretty interesting, the delivery leans towards the dry side but if you're able to get past the rather monotone delivery you'll find a fair bit of detail around the strange history of the film. He covers some of the production history, where he got a lot of the ideas from for the film, what he likes and isn't so happy with in regards to the finished product, and some of the studio problems that he ran up against in his well publicized episodes with Warner Brothers and ultimately how he ended up getting his film out anyway. While it probably would have been interesting if he'd gone into more detail about the studio issues, he still provides a very well rounded look at the making of the film from his perspective.
Rounding out the extra features are a half dozen brief deleted scenes, most of which I'd guess were cut for pacing reasons as they're simply little bits of characterization, and a still gallery.
Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist is a slick and sophisticated supernatural suspense film that is well directed, well acted, and that throws in a few clever twists. The effects work left a little to be desired and it would have been nice to see Warner Brothers put a bit more effort into the special features but to their credit, the film looks pretty good and sounds even better. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.