Curious fans who assigned the film mythic qualities second only to the lost reels of Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" will have their worst fears realized. "Dominion" is only incrementally better than "Exorcist: The Beginning" and, with both films sharing so many story elements, Harlin is guilty of merely rearranging the deck chairs on Schrader's Titanic.
Those who saw the August 2004 release will feel an immediate and very odd sense of deja-demon. The film begins in 1944 Holland as Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) loses his faith after being unable to save a group of villagers from the Nazis. Three years later, the lapsed priest comes to Africa to help excavate a church that was built well before Christianity came to the area. But the church is so well preserved that Merrin figures it was built for the sole purpose of standing atop whatever evil lies beneath it. Also in Africa are Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), who has arrived to keep tabs on Merrin, and a local doctor named Rachel (Clara Bellar). Rachel comes to care for a horribly deformed young man named Cheche (Billy Crawford), who miraculously begins to improve for reasons that will test whatever is left of Merrin's faith.
As evidenced in other directorial efforts like "Auto Focus," "Affliction" and "Hardcore," Schrader wallows in matters of sin, consequence and redemption. But here, he's stuck between serving the franchise and serving his own vision. He goes for a more contemplative take on Man's culpability in creating and propagating evil, but the script, co-written by William Wisher and Caleb Carr, falls somewhere between lip service and full thematic complexity. Merrin's reawakening isn't covered with any more conviction than the other version, although it's nice to see a film where matters of faith are their own reward, and not just a hook for standard scares. Plus contemplative doesn't have to mean dull. The movie just lies there until the death of two English soldiers trying to loot the buried church. This raises the ire of British Major Granville (Julian Wadham), whose subsequent actions cause the local tribesmen to blame the English army for the deaths that have befallen them.
What hurts is that Schrader isn't able to deliver the few chills he does attempt. The CGI work is subpar and the editing includes some slack cross-cutting. DP Vitorrio Storaro's work on the Harlin version was better: Sure, it was garish, but at least it was going somewhere, with a dirtier, more foreboding look. Also hurting is the production design, which includes sets that seem shipped from an art department storage room, and the makeup, in which countless days of digging in the desert fail to produce a single bead of sweat on any character. Not surprisingly, Skarsgard makes it all watchable, commanding the screen with strength and sympathy. He even looks a bit puffier and less heroic than in Harlin's version. As Merrin's ill-defined love interest, Clara Bellar is inadequate (Harlin replaced her with Izabella Scorupco).
Now that the question is answered regarding Schrader's vision, can Warner Bros. please stop trying to breathe life into this obviously dead franchise? There's never been a good "Exorcist" sequel, although it's not for lack of trying. If the studio really wants to squeeze some money out of the adventures of Father Merrin, Time Warner Interactive should turn "The Exorcist" into a videogame. Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Gabriel Mann and Clara Bellar. Directed by Paul Schrader. Written by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. Produced by James G. Robinson. A Warner Bros. release. Horror. Rated R for strong violence and disturbing images. Running time: 116 min