REVIEW: DOMINION – PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST

CAST

Stellan Skarsgård (Thor)
Gabriel Mann (Cherry Falls)
Clara Bellar (American Dreams)
Billy Crawford (A Second Chance)
Ralph Brown (Alien 3)
Julian Wadham (The English Patient)

In order to understand just what exactly this movie is, a little back story is probably necessary. A few years ago, director Paul Schrader (director of Hardcore and writer of Taxi Driver) was brought on board at Warner Brothers to helm what was to be the fourth film in the Exorcist franchise. The film was to be a prequel and it would tell the story of what happened to Father Merrin when he was in Africa and fill us in on the events that are hinted at in William Friedkin’s original film.

Schrader went off and made his movie, but when the suits at Warner Brothers/Morgan Creek got their first chance to check it out, they were not at all impressed with the direction that Schrader had taken the story. His was a very dark and very thought provoking film and it would seem that the studio wanted a more commercially viable option, one that was, for lack of a nastier term, dumbed down a bit for broader mass appeal with more blood and gore to satiate what the studio likely considered the typical horror movie crowd. To get what they wanted out of their investment, Warner Brothers hired Finnish action movie director Renny Harlin (of Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island), to shoot some new material, re-cut the movie, and basically, in this reviewers opinion, turn it into a dumb action horror movie. The reception, both at the box office and in terms of critical acclaim, to Harlin’s film was unimpressive and seeing as they already had a finished film from Schrader, Warner Brothers opted to give Schrader’s film a chance on DVD.

The film begins when a younger Father Lankaster Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is in his native Holland, currently under Nazi occupation. A Nazi soldier has been found dead and now the commanding officer has got the townspeople lined up to answer for it. He asks Merrin to save the majority of them by pointing out to him the murderer – after all, he should know as he takes confession from everyone in town. Merrin refuses, and instead of killing the one man responsible for it, the Nazis shoot a woman in cold blood, forcing Merrin to pick nine more people from the population of the town to die. Skip ahead a few years and Merrin finds himself assigned to an archeological dig in South Africa. The events that took place in Holland have shaken his faith pretty hard, and he’s not the optimistic young man of God that he used to be. The Church teams him up with a young priest named Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) where they work with the natives out of a local mission. The dig unveils a gorgeous old building that looks like an antiquated Catholic Church, but once Merrin and Francis explore a little more, the find that there’s a chamber underneath that was once used as a sacrificial ceremonial chamber to an evil deity of ancient lore.

While the priests are trying to figure out what to make out of the discovery, tensions are growing between the occupying British army forces and the natives. While some natives have converted to Christianity, many of them resent having a religion different then their own presented to them and because of this, the two opposing parties don’t always get along. When two would be bandits in the employ of the Queen wind up dead inside the uncovered church, the army is hell-bent on punishing the natives who did it despite the fact that Merrin insists that given the nature of the Christian symbolism behind the killings, it wasn’t one of them. To complicate matters, a young man who was unfortunately born a crippled named Cheche (Billy Crawford) has been taken into the mission hospital to recover from a beating. His recovery is speedy and Francis believes it to be a miracle, evidence of God’s hand working in Africa. Merrin isn’t so sure, and neither is Rachel (Clara Bellar), the Jewish doctor who works alongside the priests. Merrin will soon find out what it is exactly that’s causing the changes in Cheche, and when he does, what he learns will affect him for the rest of his life.

Dominion is a much smarter, tense film than Renny Harlin’s version. Harlin’s had it’s moments – there were some good jump scares, some genuine moments of tension, and considerably more traditional horror movie elements in there but it felt empty – Schrader’s film is anything but. It is definitely a slower film and it’s not as traditionally horrific as Harlin’s, but it is a much smarter story that gets into your head and sticks with you a bit as opposed to the disposable shocks of the alternate version. There are also some huge differences in terms of not only how the story plays out but also in terms of what characters are involved (there are some that are in Schrader’s version that aren’t in Harlin’s at all and vice versa) and to what extent their involvement affects the out come. The character development that happens in this film is stronger and more human, the opening scene with the Nazi executions plays out differently and because of that does a better job of explaining where Merrin is at once he gets to Africa, and the subplot with Father Francis is a nice contrast to Merrin’s story (and one that was more or less left out of Harlin’s film completely). The way that the story points involving Major Granville in this version also make a lot more sense and are handled with a much stronger sense of realism here than in the other movie.
Image result for dominion prequel to the exorcistThe biggest flaw in the film is in the special effects. There are some extremely noticeable moments where very poor CGI rendering takes you right out of the atmosphere that the film creates and most of the time, it could have been avoided. The more obvious instances involve a snake and some hyenas – why real animals weren’t used here is a mystery, because the fake ones look like just that – fake animals. Other than that, Schrader turns in a very mature and subtle supernatural movie that doesn’t really function on the same level as Harlin’s flashier go for the gore approach. Both movies work for different reasons, but this one will stick with you longer and make you think about the concepts of true good and evil and the concepts of faith and the existence of God – something Harlin’s film doesn’t even try to do.

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REVIEW: EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING

CAST

Stellan Skarsgård (Thor)
Izabella Scorupco (Reign of Fire)
James D’Arcy (Agent Carter)
Ralph Brown (Alien 3)
Julian Wadham (The English Patient)
Ben Cross (First Knight)
David Bradley (Game of Thrones)


The film opens with a bloodied and terrified priest slowly making his way across the bodies of thousands of dead soldiers. There are many crows and hyenas roving around the bodies. The priest reaches the dead body of another priest and tries take a small demon idol of the head of Pazuzu from his hand, but, suddenly, the dead priest briefly comes back to life and stops the living priest from taking it. The camera pulls back to reveal that the entire valley is littered with dead soldiers, many have been crucified upside down. The movie then cuts to Cairo, Egypt in 1949, where the young Father Lancaster Merrin (played by Skarsgård, who played the same part in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist) has taken a sabbatical from the Church and devoted himself to history and archaeology as he struggles with his shattered faith. He is haunted especially by an incident in a small village in the occupied Netherlands during World War II, where he served as parish priest: near the end of the war, a sadistic Nazi SS commander, in retaliation for the murder of a German trooper, forces Merrin to participate in arbitrary executions in order to save a full village from slaughter.
After World War II, Merrin is an archaeologist in Cairo, when he is approached by a collector of antiquities named Semelier who asks him to come to a British excavation in a valley called Derati the Turkana region of Kenya. This dig is excavating a Christian Byzantine church built circa 500 A.D. — long before Christianity had reached that region of Africa. Semelier asks Merrin to recover an ancient relic of a demon, thought to be in the church, before the British can find it. The relic is the small head of the Pazuzu idol. Merrin agrees and travels to the dig site. He is joined by Father Francis, a Vatican scholar who was on his way to do missionary work in East Africa but was diverted by the Vatican to ensure the church is not desecrated. Upon arriving at the site, Merrin meets Major Granville, the British military officer in charge of the dig. Merrin also meets the chief excavator, a brutish man names Jefferies with visible boils on his face.And he meets Sarah Novak, a doctor who spent time in a concentration camp during World War II and is haunted by what happened to her there. Merrin’s translator and guide is Chuma. In addition, Merrin learns that the diggers are disappearing or leaving in droves because the local tribemen fear the church is cursed. Merrin witnesses a digger inexplicably experience a seizure. Merrin visits the dig site. Only the dome is uncovered; the rest of the church is buried beneath the earth. Merrin discovers that the church is in perfect condition, as though it had been buried immediately after its construction were completed. Merrin, Francis, and Chuma enter the church through the dome. They find it is near-pristine condition, but there are two oddities.First, all of the statues of the angels holding weapons are pointing the spears downward, whereas it is conventional for statues of angels to either have no weapons or to point them triumphantly toward heaven. Merrin and Francis deduce the sculptors were trying to depict the angels restraining something that was beneath the church. The second disturbing discovery is that someone has vandalized the church by ripping the enormous crucifix from its place on the altar and suspending it with Christ on the cross in an upside-down position, which is considered a desecration.
Merrin is determined to learn more about the archeological dig and asks to consult with the lead archeologist, Monsieur Bession. Sarah tells Merrin that Bession went insane three weeks earlier and was transferred to a mental hospital in Nairobi. Merrin visits Bession’s tent at the dig site and sees dozens of drawings of the same thing, the demon artifact the collector had asked Merrin to find. Merrin then travels to Nairobi to visit Bession. But when he enters Bession’s room, he discovers Bession has carved a swastika on his chest and is speaking through demonic possession in the voice of the sadistic SS commander who tormented Merrin during the war. As Merrin registers these events, Bession slashes his own throat after saying he was “free.” Father Gionetti, warden of the asylum, speculates that Bession was not possessed but rather “touched” by a demon, which drove him mad and eventually to suicide. Merrin is very skeptical, but before he returns to the dig site, Father Gionetti gives him the volume of Roman rituals to use in exorcism, although Merrin claims he will never use them.
Upon returning to the village, strange events continue. A local boy is attacked and killed by hyenas that seem to continuously stalk the dig, night and day. His younger brother, Joseph, enters a fugue state after watching his brother ripped to pieces. The local chief’s wife gives birth to a stillborn baby who is covered in maggots. Around the same time Merrin discovers that there is a passageway that leads to a cave underneath the church. In the cave he finds an ancient pagan temple with the statue of the demon Pazuzu. He also finds evidence that this temple was used to conduct human sacrifices. Upon his return, he sees the local tribe cremate the stillborn baby. This makes Merrin suspicious because there are stories of an epidemic that wiped out an entire village in the valley 50 years earlier. He had been told that the dead were buried in a graveyard just outside of the valley. When he digs up one of the graves of the supposed victims of this plague, he discovers it is empty. Merrin confronts Father Francis about it and Francis reveals to him about the history of the Derati valley and the real reason he was sent there.He says that 1,500 years prior, a great army led by two priests came to the alley searching for the origin of evil. When they arrived in the valley the evil presence consumed them and they killed each other. When the lone surviving priest made it back, Emperor Justinian ordered a church be built over the site, specifically the pagan temple, and then buried to seal the evil force inside of it. Father Francis reveals to Merrin that the builders of the church never meant it to be recorded in Vatican documents, however, a vague reference to it was recorded and found in 1893. Four priests subsequently came to Derati and enlisted the local tribe to help them. All of the tribesmen and the priests disappeared. The Vatican then ordered that the false graveyard be built and stories of a plague spread around to keep people away from the valley. Then the British just so happened to stumble upon the site. Francis then reveals that the Vatican sent him to see if the legend was true. When Merrin asks what legend, Francis reveals that it is believed that the valley in Derati was the spot where Lucifer fell after the war in heaven.
At the end of the movie, the dig’s doctor, Sarah, turns out to be the possessed individual and has the demon exorcised from her in the tunnels below the church but dies. Dr. Merrin and Joseph emerge from the church, (once again buried in sand) and history has repeated itself. Everyone at the site was killed by an evil presence from the church, except for one priest. Now, only Father Merrin and the little boy are left as the British soldiers and the local tribes have annihilated each other. Merrin returns to Rome and meets with Semelier at a cafe, explaining he was unable to find the relic, Semelier replies, “But you found something….Didn’t you?”… As he leaves, Merrin is revealed to be wearing a collar and is now a priest again, having regained his faith in God, after defeating the demon with holy exorcism rituals.

It could be argued that Exorcist: The Beginning isn’t necessarily a “bad” film, but a disappointing one. But, that would be splitting hairs, as the film is simply boring and not entertaining. Stellan Skarsgard does an admirable job in the film and director Renny Harlin certainly knows where to point the camera, but they can’t save a film which was damned from the beginning.

REVIEW: THE EXORCIST III

CAST

George C. Scott (Dr. Strangelove)
Ed Flanders (Salem’s lot)
Jason Miller (Toy Soldiers)
Scott Wilson (Juenbug)
Brad Dourif (Child’s Play)
Gerard L. Bush (Die Hard)
George DiCenzo (The Choirboys)
Ken Lerner (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer)
Viveca Lindfors (Stargate)
Smauel L. Jackson (Avengers Assemble)


The film begins with the point of view of someone wandering through the streets of Georgetown, a voice informing us “I have dreams… of a rose… and of falling down a long flight of stairs.” The point of view shows a warning of evil about to arrive later that night at a church. Demonic growls are heard. Leaves and other street trash suddenly come flying into the church as a crucifix comes to life. It then cuts to Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott) at a crime scene, where a 12-year-old boy named Thomas Kintry has been murdered.
Kinderman takes his friend, a priest named Father Dyer (Ed Flanders), out to see their mutually favorite film It’s a Wonderful Life. Kinderman later relates the gruesome details of the murder of the young boy he was investigating that morning, including his crucifixion. Another murder soon takes place — a priest is found decapitated in a church. Dyer is shortly hospitalized–and found murdered the next day–with the words “IT’S A WONDERFULL LIFE” written on a wall in Dyer’s blood.The fingerprints at the crime scenes do not match, indicating a different person was responsible for each. Kinderman tells hospital staff the reason for his unease: fifteen years ago the vicious serial killer James “The Gemini” Venamun (Brad Dourif), was executed; with every victim he cut off the right index finger and carved the Zodiac sign of Gemini into the palm of their left hand. Kinderman noticed the hands of the three new victims and verified that the Gemini’s sign has been there. The Gemini Killer also always used an extra “L” in his notes sent to the media, such as “usefull” or “carefull”. Furthermore, to filter out false confessions, the original Gemini Killer’s true mutilations were kept a secret by the Richmond police’s homicide department; the newspapers were made to wrongfully report that the left middle finger was severed and that the Gemini sign was carved on the back of the victim.Kinderman visits the head of the psychiatric ward, Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson), who relates the history of a man in Cell 11, that he was found wandering aimlessly fifteen years ago with amnesia. The man was locked up, catatonic until recently when he became violent and claimed to be the Gemini Killer. Kinderman sees that the patient resembles his dead friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). The patient expresses ignorance of Father Karras, but boasts of killing Father Dyer.
The next morning, a nurse and Dr. Temple are found dead. Kinderman returns to see the patient in Cell 11, who claims that after his execution his soul entered Karras’s dying body. The Gemini’s spiritual “master”, who had possessed the girl Regan MacNeil, was furious at being pushed out of the child’s body and is exacting its revenge by putting the soul of the Gemini Killer into the body of Father Karras. Each evening, the soul of the Gemini leaves the body of Karras and possesses the elderly people with senile dementia elsewhere in the hospital and uses them to commit the murders. The Gemini Killer forced Dr. Temple to bring Kinderman to him or he would suffer in unspeakable ways — Temple couldn’t take the pressure, and he committed suicide.
The Gemini possesses an old woman, who makes a failed attempt to murder Kinderman’s daughter. The possessed patient attacks Kinderman, but the attack abruptly ends when a priest, Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson), enters the corridor leading to cell 11 and attempts an exorcism on the patient. The Gemini’s “patron” intervenes, taking over the patient’s body, and the priest is all but slain. Kinderman arrives in time and attempts to euthanise Karras after finding the body of the priest but is hurled into the wall by the possessed Karras. Father Morning manages to briefly regain consciousness and tells Karras, “Damien, fight him.” Karras regains his free will briefly and cries to Kinderman, “Bill, now! Shoot now! Kill me now!” Kinderman fires his revolver several times, hitting Karras in the chest, fatally wounding him. The Gemini is now gone…and Karras is finally free. With weak breaths, he says “We won, Bill. Now free me.” Kinderman puts his revolver against Karras’ head — and fires. The film ends with Kinderman standing over Karras’ grave.

Despite the ghastly ending, “The Exorcist III: Legion” is a vastly underrated little horror movie — beautifully directed and acted, with a darkly theological undercurrent. Too bad Blatty hasn’t directed much else.

REVIEW: EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC

CAST

Linda Blair (Hell Night)
Richard Burton (Ellis Island)
Kitty Winn (Peeper)
Max Von Sydow (Conan The Barbarian)
Paul Henreid (Casablanca)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars)
Ned Beatty (Superman)
Louise Fletcher (Star Trek: DS9)

Philip Lamont, a priest struggling with his faith, attempts to exorcise a possessed South American girl who claims to “heal the sick”. However, the exorcism goes wrong and a lit candle sets fire to the girl’s dress, killing her. Afterwards, Lamont is assigned by the Cardinal to investigate the death of Father Lankester Merrin, who had been killed four years prior in the course of exorcising the Assyrian demon Pazuzu from Regan MacNeil. The Cardinal informs Lamont (who has had some experience at exorcism, and has been exposed to Merrin’s teachings) that Merrin is up on posthumous heresy charges due to his controversial writings. Apparently, Church authorities are trying to modernize and do not want to acknowledge that Satan as an actual evil entity exists.
Regan, although now seemingly normal and staying with guardian Sharon Spencer in New York, continues to be monitored at a psychiatric institute by Dr. Gene Tuskin. Regan claims she remembers nothing about her ordeal in Washington, D.C., but Tuskin believes her memories are only buried or repressed. Father Lamont visits the institute but his attempts to question Regan about the circumstances of Father Merrin’s death are rebuffed by Dr. Tuskin, believing that Lamont’s approach would do Regan more harm than good. In an attempt to plumb her memories of the exorcism, specifically the circumstances in which Merrin died, Dr. Tuskin hypnotizes the girl, to whom she is linked by a “synchronizer” — a biofeedback device used by two people to synchronize their brainwaves. After a guided tour by Sharon of the Georgetown house where the exorcism took place, Lamont returns to be coupled with Regan by the synchronizer. The priest is spirited to the past by Pazuzu to observe Father Merrin exorcising a young boy, Kokumo, in Africa. Learning that the boy developed special powers to fight Pazuzu, who appears as a swarm of locusts, Lamont journeys to Africa, defying his superior, to seek help from the adult Kokumo.
Lamont learns that Pazuzu attacks people who all have some form of psychic healing ability. Kokumo has since become a scientist, studying how to prevent grasshoppers from becoming locust swarms. Regan is able to reach telepathically inside the minds of others; she uses this to help an autistic girl to speak, for instance. Father Merrin belonged to a group of theologians who believed that psychic powers were a spiritual gift which would one day be shared by all humanity in a kind of global consciousness, and thought people like Kokumo and Regan were foreshadowers of this new type of humanity. In a vision, Merrin asks Lamont to watch over Regan.
Lamont and Regan return to the old house in Georgetown. The pair are followed by Tuskin and Sharon, concerned about Regan’s safety. En route, Pazuzu tempts Lamont by offering him unlimited power, appearing as a succubus doppelgänger of Regan. Lamont initially succumbs to the demon but is brought back by Regan and attacks the Regan doppelgänger while a swarm of locusts deluge the pair and the entire house begins to crumble around them. However, Lamont manages to kill the Regan doppelgänger by beating open its chest and pulling out its heart. In the end, Regan banishes the locusts (and Pazuzu) by enacting the same ritual attempted by Kokumo to get rid of locusts in Africa (although he failed and was possessed). Outside the house, Sharon dies from burn injuries after she immolates herself and Tuskin tells Lamont to watch over Regan. Regan and Lamont leave and Tuskin remains at the house to answer the police’s questions.
In the end, Exorcist II: The Heretic is an awkward affair, with scenes that end abruptly, and truly bad acting by an overly cute Blair and a bored, if intense, Burton. Like most sequels, it merely tarnishes its predecessor, instead of enhancing it, though it tries.

REVIEW: THE EXORCIST (1973)

 

CAST

Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream)
Max Von Sydow (Conan The Barbarian)
Jason Miller (Toy Soldiers)
Linda Blair (Hell Night)
Kitty Winn (Peeper)
Robert Symonds (The Ice Pirates)

Released in 1973 to unsuspecting audiences worldwide, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has shocked, appalled, outraged, reassured and just plain terrified millions of people during the last 40 years. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name (which was, in turn, inspired by a documented 1949 event), this jarring film professes the existence of demonic possession under seemingly random circumstances: any one of us could fall victim, even an innocent young girl. The victim is Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), who gradually shifts from a precocious pre-teen to a vomiting, hate-spewing representation of Satan himself. Her atheist mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) tries almost everything to save Regan—pills, medical procedures, psychiatry—before turning to religion, represented by Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a struggling Catholic priest who reluctantly takes the unusual case. Soon enough, he calls in the elderly Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and both men take part in an exorcism to wholly remove the evil spirit from Regan’s body.The Catholic Church infamously endorsed The Exorcist—even promoted it, to a certain extent—and why not? The movie makes Fathers Merrin and Kerris look like superheroes during the climactic exorcism, battling Satan for the soul of a helpless 12 year-old girl while staring death square in the eyes. All of this transpires after numerous medical procedures are attempted and doctors half-heartedly prescribe drugs to sedate the troubled young girl. “Science can’t save us and religion comes to the rescue”…so if that falls in line with your belief system, you’re more likely to be affected by what transpires here. Still, The Exorcist relies too heavily on gross-out gags, jump scares and its central “child in distress” to feel like anything more than an extended version of shock treatment. Well-made shock treatment, sure. Either way, The Exorcist carved itself a devout following during the last 40 years and even spawned sequels. It also warranted the release of a director’s cut in 2000, infamously advertised as “The Version You’ve Never Seen”.Having no long-standing ties to the theatrical cut (after all, I first saw The Exorcist just a few short years before the director’s cut had come about), I don’t emphatically prefer one over the other. The addition of a few scenes—medical procedures, the infamous “spider walk”, a short scene of Father Karras listening to tapes of a younger Regan, and a conversation between Karras and Merrin during the exorcism—are either modest improvements or, at the very least, short enough to not overstay their welcome. Yet other additions (including a few subliminally-flashed demon faces and a longer ending) detract from the overall experience. Overall, it’s a toss-up in my opinion, so the viewer is left to decide whether the Director’s Cut is worth another ten minutes. What matters most is that both versions are available here.