31 Days of Hell: Prequel to the Beginning - A Look At The Exorcist Prequels

For today's 31 Days of Hell entry, Andrew breaks down the details behind the two divisive Exorcist prequels and the history behind the films. 

"Like my Linda Blair makeup? No?
How about these boobs then?"
In 2004, writer-director Paul Schrader began work on his version of Exorcist: The Beginning. Courtesy of Morgan Creek entertainment, it depictedFather Merrin’s (Stellan Skarsgård) first encounter with the demon Pazuzu in East Africa.  Contrary to Morgan Creek’s expectations for a standard horror item, Schrader turned in a rough cut of what was ultimately deemed a ‘commercially unmarketable’ psychological drama.  Schrader’s $30 million drama was shelved and Schrader was fired from production.  In an unprecedented move, Morgan Creek opted for hiring director Renny Harlin and starting from scratch, pouring $50 million into the extensive reshoots, rewrites and recasting interspersed with portions Schrader already shot, totaling $80 million.  Essentially, Skarsgård, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and crew treaded the same locations and set pieces yet two distinctly different films were made out of executive fears Schrader’s version would fail commercially. 

Schrader’s picture was slated as a bonus feature to be included with the DVD release of Harlin’s version, but after poor box office performances and overwhelmingly negative press, it was decided the Schrader version would have a fair shot at a limited theatrical release under the new title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.   

Despite being the first time a major studio released two different versions of the same movie since the 1955 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! was shot simultaneously in Cinemascope 35mm and Todd AO 70mm, Warner Brothers would ultimately lose money from both productions and the critics were equally unkind, if not more, to Schrader’s vision.  Still, for William Peter Blatty, who despised Harlin’s film but admired Schrader’s film a great deal, Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist represented a unique chapter in the history of the checkered franchise borne out of one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004 – directed by Renny Harlin)

In both Harlin’s film and the Schrader film, Stellan Skarsgård portrays Father Merrin in an opening prologue over an incident in Nazi occupied Holland during WWII.  His faith is called into question when a Nazi SS commander forces Merrin to participate in the choosing of random victims to be executed in lieu of the entire village being massacred instead.  Broken by the experience, Father Merrin relocates to East Africa on an archeological dig with a British excavation team in the Turkana region of Kenya.  During the dig, the ancient Christian Byzantine church is discovered and once the sealed church doors are broken, a bizarre torrent of supernatural and demonic events are unleashed.  Tensions between tribesmen of the region and British cavalry begin to rise with the same frequency as demonic hyena attacks and other ongoing atrocities. 

"Dude. I just love movies
about bondage."
It is here that Harlin’s adaptation shifts gears and begins recounting the iconography and tropes of Friedkin’s 1973 film rather than being its own unique entity.  Instead of a new take on the demon Father Merrin would inevitably engage in theological warfare, we get the same Eileen Dietz/Linda Blair facial makeup designed by renowned makeup artist Dick Smith in 1973.  The familiarity of this, the provocative dialogue and sexual gestures acted out by Blair years ago just comes off as lazy and laughable here. 

In a short amount of time, Harlin’s idiotic and derivative exercise manages to deep six any faith we might have had in his overtly exploitative B movie with an A-list budget behind it.  Contrary to the realism deployed by Friedkin’s impeccable masterpiece, Harlin’s overblown gorefest is insipid and, frankly, insulting to watch.  I suppose you shouldn’t be hard pressed to expect much from the guy who killed off Samuel L. Jackson with a terrible Playstation-1 looking shark attack in his equally execrable Deep Blue Sea.
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005 – directed by Paul Schrader)  

"This cave is so bright. Science!"
Stymied and shelved by prurient forces only interested in thick skulled exploitation, Paul Schrader’s original adaptation of the same screenplay and production found limited theatrical release after the abysmal failure of the Renny Harlin version of the film.  Instead of blood and guts, Schrader’s quiet, thoughtful meditation on Father Merrin’s encounter with the forces of evil is less interested in scares than trying to portray legitimate spiritual conflict.  While the Harlin and Schrader films follow the same locations, sets, and basic premise, Schrader’s demonic possession is far more interesting in unique.  

As opposed to the lazy Dick Smith makeup ripoff, Schrader presents Cheche, an introverted, physically deformed boy ostracized for his oppressive appearance.  As Cheche becomes possessed, his crippling ugliness begins to melt away until he is of perfect physique and beauty by the time the demon has fully inhabited the boy.  It’s a unique and thought provoking twist on the nature of demonic possession and serves as a startling antithesis to what people have come to expect.  When Merrin finally frees Cheche of the demon, he returns to his formerly grotesque self.  Also unique in Schrader’s film is his handling of the mounting tensions between the tribesmen and the British military forces occupying the region.  Where Harlin kept the entanglements in the background, Schrader brings it to the forefront and makes the dilemma integral to the story instead of just another aspect of the ensuing atrocities. 

"Yes, father. I know all about
you Catholic priests. But, I refuse
to take off my pants."
Sadly, Schrader’s film also suffers greatly from the studio’s lack of interest in the piece, with some of the worst CGI effects ever incorporated into a major film production.  When the awful looking hyenas and carnivorous cattle appear onscreen, consideration of Warner’s refusal to offer monetary assistance of any kind to complete the picture must be taken into consideration.  Had Schrader earned more support for what is ultimately a largely unfinished project, he might have had more artistic success.  It’s a shame the drama created by Schrader, which is involving, believable and immediate, is ruined by technical shortcomings of this nature.  Schrader also borrows shots from Harlin’s film to complete unfinished shots and David Lynch’s composer Angelo Badalamenti steps in to provide some cues to fill in the gaps.  

After viewing Schrader’s film, you can understand why the studio passed on it initially, as it’s not exactly horror or much of a thriller.  Still, while one must admit neither film version propositioned by Warner Brothers is much to make a fuss over, Schrader at least tried to provide a new and therefore necessary take on material that demanded more of the same.  It’s worth noting that between the two films, William Peter Blatty took dump on Harlin’s film but heralded Schrader’s film as a classy piece of work.  

-Andrew Kotwicki