After an initial trilogy, TV series, upcoming remake, and an undisputed spot on every ‘Top 10 Scariest Movies of All Time’ list worth its salt, The Exorcist is a household title for us horror fans, many of whom have burned through multiple copies of the classic title through every conceivable movie medium (VHS, DVD, Blu Ray, Special Edition Blu Ray, 40th Anniversary Blu Ray, etc.) Despite the fanfare for the first and third movies (the second has always been the trilogy’s red-headed stepchild), what is seldom talked about are the two prequels.
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Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) & Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, directed by Renny Harlin & Paul Schrader respectively, underwent a lot of troubles only to receive largely negative reviews and neglect from fans of the original. Despite being panned, the two (alternate) prequels are rich in mythology and pose multiple questions about faith, God, and good vs evil, to the point where they deserve not only recognition but analysis as well. Here to do a cinematic deep-dive into the two movies is Katelyn Nelson. Katelyn is a writer and film addict, primarily exploring horror, feminism, and disability study and identifies herself rather proudly as ‘her own favorite disabled Final Girl.’ Her writings, on everything from banned books to the importance of more disabled representation on screen, can be found on Medium. She also has bylines on KillerHorrorCritic.com and on GhoulsMagazine.com. Follow her on Twitter at @24th_Doctor.
I have always believed there is a distinct difference between faith and religion. One does not need religion to have faith, and it is entirely possible—sometimes even common—to be religious without having genuine faith in the things you are taught. Perhaps this is why horror films dealing with crises of faith are so widespread and, if done well enough, so effective. While we are seeing a more diverse array of religious practices and faiths represented in genre film, Catholicism—and particularly the power of believing in the face of unimaginable evil—still occupies the lion’s share of the conversation. This is no doubt thanks in part to William Friedkin’s 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, one of the most effective and long-standing works in all of horror. Even if it doesn’t get under your skin as much as others, there is no denying its influence or its staying power. As recently as 2016 networks were plumbing new depths in Blatty’s story of possession and belief and, while it doesn’t have as many entries under its belt as other horror heavyweights, Exorcist did manage a five-film franchise. With the announcement of a new adaptation underway, maybe it’s time to revisit some of the more unusual entries: the simultaneously created prequels Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.
The 2000s was an era of revamping classic entries for a more modern audience in part through the exploration of origin stories for some of horror’s most terrifying villains. Though certainly no stranger to flops, there were enough successful attempts in the decade to warrant almost every well-enough known horror heavy hitter taking a crack at exploring new angles of their stories. And so, Morgan Creek attempted to give the Exorcist franchise another moment in the sun with the development of not one, but two prequels centered on Father Merrin and his battle for belief amid a showdown with the devil. Multiple prequels are not entirely unusual, but multiple prequels telling the same story and released only a year apart?
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The prequel was originally developed by director Paul Schrader but Morgan Creek, dissatisfied with his more psychological version, hired Renny Harlin to direct a version (Exorcist: The Beginning) more in line with the usual horror beats in the hopes that it would be more successfully received. When it failed, they allowed Schrader to finish and release his version (Dominion). While neither did particularly well and Dominion had a more limited release, Schrader’s version is, ironically, generally thought to be superior. After watching them back-to-back, however, I found a more interesting lens to look through than the usual merit debate. Despite working from the same treatment, you see, each has something unique to offer the larger Exorcist story arc and what they have to say about Father Merrin’s journey is worth exploring.
I began this piece by stating my case for a distinction between faith and religion and how it is possible in either direction to have one without the other. The Exorcist prequels, though they contain the same narrative bones, are fleshed out on opposing ends of this spectrum. Beginning looks at Merrin’s fluctuating beliefs through an angrier lens that criticizes the church and the way it uses its power to manipulate, while Dominion focuses much more on a crisis of faith brought on by Merrin’s own guilt over actions in his past.
Harlin’s Beginning, released in 2004, feels closer to standard horror fare of the era: jump scares orchestrated by camera work and sound design at every possible turn, red herring threads that attempt to heighten tension, dramatic lighting, and a surprisingly dark tone abound. It feels less safe than its companion prequel for everyone involved. Though it tries to end on a positive note with Merrin firmly reclaiming his holy title, everything up to that moment is so borderline nihilistic that his triumph feels almost hollow.
The Beginning’s version of Merrin is angry. Angry at the church, angry at humanity, and angry at himself. The only belief he has left to cling to is the idea that evil is an entirely human condition, not something brought down upon us from the outside. As such, he has forsaken the church and his title as a priest in favor of a more tactile pursuit: archaeology. Along the way he has also become—rightly—more critical of the organized institutions that alternately formed and then shook his beliefs: the Catholic church/Vatican and the military, respectively.
Beginning’s Merrin is very vocal about denouncing and criticizing both institutions and painting himself in the light of a man without faith. When asked if he misses being a priest or presented with the idea that his faith in God is the only thing that will save him, this Merrin firmly states that there is no point in his previous occupation and, if his faith is all that will save him from the evil he is confronting, he is doomed. He does not seem conflicted about either position. He states them, deadpan, and heads onward into his probable doom. He has enough demons to haunt him, after all. And all those demons are human.
The one thing he won’t allow, however, is the mistreatment of others. It is one thing for his soul and life to be doomed; it is another for the people of the village he is excavating to be tormented by the church, military, or even other archaeologists. Having been forced during WWII to choose 10 people to die and then witness their executions—a thread present in both versions of the story—seems to have turned him into someone both scarred by violence and somewhat quicker to enact it. Interestingly, Harlin’s version assigns steeper consequences to Merrin’s inability to choose victims in the war-torn town square—when he does not immediately select someone to die, the German officer shoots a child.
Oddly, though Dominion deals considerably more with the concepts of guilt and innocence, Beginning spends the most time turning the death of children into a spectacle. We witness the Nazi murder of the child in his past along with Merrin and, in the village, we watch as a young boy’s brother is ripped to shreds by a pack of hyenas. One act is purely human, the other we are led to believe is brought on by supernatural forces. Both could be said to be attempts at shock value. Therein, perhaps, lies the film’s greatest problem.
Though there are things about it that work well enough, and one or two relatively effective twists to boot, Harlin’s version of Merrin’s origins is decidedly more interested in shocking and terrifying the audience on a visceral level, and it seeks to achieve that goal by any means necessary. Whether it be watching the violent drawn out deaths of children, the traumatic past of the doctor assigned to aid in the dig (a Holocaust survivor named Sarah, played by Izabella Scorupco), the repulsive and predatory Jeffries (Alan Ford), or the more abstract violent manipulation Merrin uncovers when he discovers the Vatican knew about the village’s bloody past with the demon and framed it into a more palatable story—complete with its own iconography for the spectacle of death—Harlin puts the gamut of human and manmade evil on full display, letting the possession act as the cherry on top that will drive Merrin to either madness or belief. While it sounds good enough on paper, it plays out onscreen as little more than a parade of tragedy peppered with appropriate institutional criticisms and capped with Merrin’s necessary though tragedy-tinged success. Indeed, though both films are essentially the same length, Beginning feels infinitely slower to get through. It is horrific acts with shallow depths, religion sans faith.
Enter the return of Schrader and the release of Dominion. Schrader’s version was always the more emotionally and psychologically inclined, more interested in examining the push-pull relationship of innocence and evil of the spirit than laying bare the evils of manmade institutions. Dominion holds some very important differences at its core. For one, Merrin has not forsaken the church or his role altogether and seems more stricken with guilt than anger. He is struggling for belief in the face of indescribable human acts, yes, but his heart still feels tied to his faith. This does challenge his triumphant reclamation ending somewhat because it never felt truly lost the way it did in Beginning, but his one-foot-in-one-foot-out moral ground is important for making Dominion’s second story difference work.
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It is a little odd that a second director should be commissioned to make a more horror-esque story out of something that, in the hands of its original creator, falls squarely into some of horror’s most common tropes. Dominion, for example, switches out the predatory Jeffries from Beginning for Cheche (Billy Crawford), a disabled villager shunned and believed by everyone around him to be cursed because of the way he looks. They beat him up and cast him out whenever he gets too close. Merrin may be the protagonist, but Cheche is the vehicle pushing the story forward. Dominion is most interested in a supernatural battle for innocence in the face of evil, and the shortest-hand way to articulate that arc is through the possession of the most defenseless character into the most villainous and, if you’re lucky, back again. After all, how can you have a crisis of faith if, right before your eyes, a disfigured boy is healed into normalcy?
If you’ve watched enough horror, you know the way Schrader’s version will go almost before it gets there. He’s more interested in considering the effects of guilt on his human characters, which means the supernatural bend is going to follow its usual course. If someone tells you at a story’s opening that there is a character already believed to be cursed for little more than existing, it’s a safe bet he will be actually cursed soon enough. Though Schrader follows this trail through, he at least does something worth examining with it. In true Luciferian fashion (though in every film the demon is meant to be Pazuzu), the possessed Cheche confronts Merrin and the doctor (this time named Rachel, played by Clara Bellar) with their own guilts and presents them with the ultimate moral question: would you change it if you could? What would you give to be free of the guilt binding you down? Such questions are the source of his power. Who among us, after all, hasn’t done something they wished they could change? Though the climactic scene is visually lackluster, the core of it is what Schrader had been building toward the entire time. A crisis of faith in the purest fashion, by this point in the film all the trappings of religion have been stripped away, leaving only Merrin and his strength of heart and will to face the most powerfully manipulative force imaginable.
The saga of The Exorcist prequels is convoluted to say the least, but for all the missteps they do seem to offer lenses worth looking through when it comes to telling stories about belief. Whether that belief is in the supernatural, or in God, or in something else altogether, each prequel offers a viable path. Dig beneath the CGI-heavy visuals and jump scares and you might find some unexpectedly worthwhile questions about faith. Do you leave it and return to it forged by rage, or by guilt? What does it look like to face that struggle? Is the best view of God really from Hell? With such a checkered franchise history behind it, The Exorcist’s path forward may prove to be limitless.