"Dominion" (prequel to "The Exorcist")

Finally saw Paul Schrader's Dominion, having seen the Renny Harlin version and wow, if there's a worst case of bastardization I can't remember it at the moment. Same sets, some of the same cast, roughly the same story, but the difference is almost night and day. Perfect material for a Hollywood satire, where this serious filmmaker is given a free hand until he's almost finished his picture, then he's shown the door and replaced by a barrelful of monkeys.

I think the first half is superb--after a grabber of an opening sequence (that ends with a haunting series of sound effects, fading away on the soundtrack) the details accumulate slowly, patiently: a church is found, but signs indicate it was buried as soon as it was completed; the angels inside are poised not to worship god in heaven, but to gaze downwards, watchful of a hole in the floor; outside the church, a pack of hyenas attack a herd of cows--the cows kill the hyenas and eat their flesh.

I remember Skarsgard in Harlin's version: he seemed tired and beleagured, not by guilt or past memories but by a sense of "what the hell am I doing here?" Watching Schrader's version completes that performance, because now you understand what was going on in his mind: here, he was in the hands of a fascinating writer (and on occasion, competent filmmaker) with a genuine sensibility; there he was in the hands of a, well, hack. There he was trying to do his measured, tortured Merrin, looking backwards on that horrfying winter day in Holland, while the movie was doing Ghostbusters meet Close Encounters of the Third Kind; here the performance is in perfect harmony, as the very African air breathes a sense of bleakness, overlaying a profound corruption.

The film stumbles towards the end; too many flying figures, and this really bad heavenly glare that looked as if the producers had cut Schrader's sfx budget a month too soon; I'd have liked him to maintain his measured pace to the very end. But an imperfect Exorcist film by Schrader is far preferable to anything by Harlin; if I had to rate the movies, I'd put Boorman's sequel on top, this second, Friedkin's original third, Blatty's occasionally funny, often inept version fourth, and Harlin's slap-and-tickle brand of horror deep beneath the church, where it belongs.

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