It’s no secret that the Exorcist series of movies were plagued with bad luck and controversy; however, no other movie in that series was probably as plagued as the planned prequel that would explore Father Lankester Merrin’s experiences with the demon Pazuzu in Africa. According to Mark Kermode, writing for The Guardian back in 2004, the prequel suffered a death, a walk-off, a firing, Internet slander, and disavowal by the creator of the series. Indeed, the prequel that was, eventually shot, does not even line up with the canon established in the films. In Exorcist II: The Heretic, we learn some of Merrin’s back story, which had been hinted at in The Exorcist, but this back story is at odds in the prequel, with different locations, different time periods, and different people possessed and exorcised.
Perhaps this jumbled up continuity was related to the prequel’s production. According to Kermode, the prequel was only greenlit after the box office success of the 25th anniversary release of the one that started it all:
Impressed, franchise holders Morgan Creek (who made Exorcist III) commissioned a prequel screenplay by Terminator 2 writer William Wisher to which Tom McLoughlin (director of the horror film One Dark Night ) was reportedly attached. But when rewrites by bestselling author Caleb Carr attracted 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer, McLoughlin dropped out and the project grew in scale. Box-office star Liam Neeson signed on to play the young Father Merrin, and shooting was scheduled to take place in the summer of 2002. But then in July, Frankenheimer died; Neeson left to fulfill other commitments; and the project was left once again in the lurch. At which point, Morgan Creek made the surprising decision to enlist maverick auteur Paul Schrader to save the day, helming his first studio feature in 20 years. It was a decision they would live to regret.
Indeed, Schrader would make it through principal photography with Stellan Skarsgård stepping in as Merrin. It seemed that Schrader would have been a great fit, for, according to Kermode:
Raised as a strict Calvinist, Schrader had once famously described The Exorcist as ‘the greatest metaphor in cinema… God and the Devil in the same room arguing over the body of a little girl.’ … For Schrader, Exorcist: The Beginning offered the chance to command a $40m movie while simultaneously exploring his own tortured vision of religious faith.
However, a first cut of the film left the Hollywood execs crying foul, believing there to be no where near enough blood, gore, and shocks to befit the series. Instead of letting Schrader conduct reshoots, or perhaps because Schrader did not believe such scare tactics were necessary, script rewrites and reshoots were ordered with a new director, Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2: Die Harder and The Long Kiss Goodnight), given the helm. Kermode reported in January of 2004 the rumors that none of Schrader’s footage would survive in Harlin’s film, and, indeed, in its release that August, nothing seemed to remain. However, The Beginning was not well received, and the studio, humbly perhaps, returned to Schrader and offered him the resources to complete his version. The world would see his version released nearly a year later — meaning that you have basically the same movie released about a year apart with Skarsgård as Merrin in both versions — because, hey, when you got an actor as awesome as Skarsgård, why waste him?
As part of this project, we watched both versions, and it was hard not to compare them with one another. We watched them in order of release: thus, we watched Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning, and in watching Harlin’s version, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, we were constantly comparing the two. The two movies follow the same plot, the same story beats, the same characters (mostly). Harlin’s version was considered by the studio to be more of a “money-maker” given its focus on gore, which was definitely there, while Schrader’s seemed less polished.
But the thing is, they are the same movie, and they cannot be discussed without referencing each other. Because of that, this post will consider our reception of Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist simultaneously. Story beats and characterizations will be considered for how the movies represent possession and exorcism, with feminist, queer theory, and post-colonial critiques possible. For another opinion on this double exposure and reception, click here and here.
Given the complexity of comparing these two movies, an Issuu publication was created, embedded below and linked here:
Here is the trailer for Exorcist: The Beginning:
And here is the trailer for Dominion: Prequel to the Exoricst:
I suggest that anyone who is a fan of exorcism movies and The Exorcist in particular to view both movies, and to make up your mind as to which is the more worthy prequel — the one that focuses on the evils of women, or the one that focuses on the evils of colonialism and gender/sexual ambiguity.