31 Screams in October, Vol. 3, #5: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Posted: October 5, 2016 in Movie Review
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5. Dominion (2005)

Director: Paul Schrader

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford

I don’t know why some studios decide a film won’t play well with the general audience. Maybe test screenings affect their judgment. Maybe there’s a disagreement between members of the production crew on the direction of the film. It could also be that they’re just plain idiots. Goodness knows there are plenty of examples to choose from in the horror genre alone. Some geniuses at Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek decided that the original version of a planned Exorcist prequel wouldn’t be exciting enough for its intended audience. So that version was scrapped, swallowed up and regurgitated as ”Exorcist: The Beginning.” But cooler heads prevailed, and “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” was eventually released on DVD for fans to compare and contrast with the other abysmal version.

The film begins in German-occupied Holland in 1944, where a Nazi soldier has been killed, and the Commander compels Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) to choose ten of the townspeople to be killed, setting an example for the rest. The action shifts three years ahead to 1947 in British East Africa. Merrin is uncovering what appears to be a 5th century church of Byzantine origin. He only gets the roof uncovered before he is summoned by Major Granville (Julian Wadham) to meet with Father Francis (Gabriel Mann). In uncovering the church, Merrin and Francis are amazed to discover that it appears to have been buried shortly after its construction. Before they’ve even finished digging, one of the workers collapses and begins to convulse violently. But this is interpreted as a case of heat stroke and they continue digging until they’ve finished, despite the misgivings of the villagers who are certain something evil is afoot. A crippled boy named Cheche (Billy Crawford) hangs around the site. Merrin later finds Cheche late at night outside and in the rain and hurries the boy to the hospital under Rachel (Clara Bellar)’s care.

Merrin finishes the dig and brings Father Francis to see what he has found. Though the outside of the church is beautiful, what lies inside is as confusing as it is disturbing. Instead of a house of worship, the purpose of this structure appears to have been to hold something down. Further investigation shows that the church was built on top of another house of worship, one dedicated to Satan. Interestingly, Cheche seems to react to the uncovering of this second temple. Father Francis insists on having the British military brought in to stand guard and make sure that the church will not be looted. But, of course, the soldiers are just as greedy as anyone else would be. Two of them enter the church to try and swipe a few jewels off of the center statue. The next morning, pieces of the two miscreant soldiers are found scattered inside the church. Almost immediately, the villagers are blamed, but a witness tells Major Granville that he saw the two soldiers trying to steal the jewels, and then kill one another whilst in the middle of an argument. Granville finds this story preposterous. He wants the real killers found, or else he will wage war against the village.

Back at the hospital, yet another mysterious discovery: Cheche’s leg is healing far more quickly after his surgery than it was supposed to. That same night, the soldiers move in to make their position painfully clear. Major Granville is behaving eerily similar to the German soldier who soured Merrin’s faith three years earlier. Growing tired of waiting for an answer, Granville executes a young girl in front of everyone, after which he is knocked out cold by Merrin.

Perhaps the most moving and equally chilling scene of the film comes when Father Francis returns to his classroom after speaking with Merrin about the latter man’s lost faith. The two boys, Joseph and James, explain to him that the reason he has so many more students that day is because they are afraid that Jesus Christ will take their lives in addition to the girl that has already been murdered. Gabriel Mann plays this scene beautifully, both in kneeling to explain that it was the British Major who did the killing and also in expressing his sadness with his eyes. Sadly this touching moment is brief because Jomo, a villager who takes a very dim view of Christianity, intrudes and brains everyone in the classroom except for Father Francis, who is knocked unconscious and Joseph, who sat crouched in the corner. Jomo is shot dead, and Merrin’s faith has suffered another blow as serious as those to the heads of all the dead children.

Unbeknownst to everyone, this act of violence has awakened something very dangerous within the body and soul of Cheche. At first, he appears to Father Francis to have been miraculously healed and imbued with the spirit of Christ. However, as soon as Father Francis touches his Holy Cross to the forehead of Cheche, it becomes clear that something most un-holy lives inside him. Merrin does not believe anything supernatural is at work here. But why, then, does Major Granville suddenly commit suicide? Seems he understood what was happening to him, that something evil had taken hold and THAT was why he had killed that girl.

As Major Granville’s soldiers and the villagers prepare to wage war on one another, Francis and Rachel prepare Cheche for a baptism. No sooner do they begin than does the demon inside Cheche resurface. Father Francis decides that the boy is possessed (took him long enough, huh?) and runs off to get the proper book to perform the exorcism, leaving Rachel alone with the boy. The demon seals the entrance so that no one can get either in or out. The soldiers decide that they will wait until morning to clear the rubble. By that time Father Francis is found barely alive, bound and impaled with arrows in a manner resembling that of Saint Sebastian, wounds he eventually dies from. Subsequently, the entrance to the church is re-opened. Merrin insists that no one else enter but him. Merrin sends Rachel out of harm’s way before running back to the hospital himself to pray. His faith restored, Father Merrin performs the exorcism and saves Cheche’s soul. With the demon now contained, the battle between the soldiers and villagers is called off.

Of the two versions of the prequel to “The Exorcist,” this is clearly the superior version. The story is more coherent, the majority of the actors are better suited for their roles than their counterparts (the exception being Clara Bellar, who was bested by Izabella Scorupco in “Exorcist: The Beginning”) and, although there are scenes of intense violence in this movie, rarely is there ever the inclusion of blood and gore just for the sake of its presence. There’s just one problem: “Dominion” may have a story that doesn’t appear copied and pasted together, but even this version forgets to maintain interest. If you really must see an “Exorcist” prequel, this is the one to watch. Just keep your expectations low.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Good review, nice and thorough. One question: What makes this a prequel? How does it tie in with the original Exorcist book or film?

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