Edinburgh International Film Festival

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005)

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

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Father Merrin and Father Francis discover a hidden crypt in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

In 2004, producer James G Robinson hired Paul Schrader to direct a prequel to William Friedkin's seminal horror classic The Exorcist. Some time and £40 million dollars later, when the film was almost finished, Robinson decided it wasn't scary enough. He hired Renny Harlin and started again from scratch. Now, I haven't seen Exorcist: The Beginning, as the Harlin's film came to be called, so I can't pass judgment, but it looked pretty dreadful in the trailer. So just how bad must Schrader's film be?

Well, of course, the answer is, not bad at all. Nor is it gory, schlocky, sensationalist or full of pointless startling crashes to make you jump for no reason. Whilst Exorcist: The Beginning is Indiana Jones with monsters, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is an intelligent, thought provoking study of good and evil and all that lies between.

Cheche (Billy Crawford) with doctor Rachel (Clara Bellar)

The film opens with our old friend Father Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist and Stellan Skarsgård here) staring evil straight in the face - but not the ravaged face of a demon-possessed little girl, but the chiseled features of a Nazi captain who's calmly executing Merrin's congregation. Evil in this film is definitely not the exclusive preserve of the Devil.

Three years later and Merrin, racked by guilt and failing in his faith, is on sabbatical from the Church, working on archaeological digs in Africa. And he thinks he's discovered the big one: a 5th century Christian church buried deep within the sands of the desert. Dedicated to St Michael, the church seems to be built with one purpose - holding down whatever horrors lies beneath. Now, this may be a 'thinking man's horror film' (or indeed, a thinking woman's horror film) but that doesn't mean that Merrin carefully covers up the church and leaves the evil be. Oh no, instead he cracks open the sinister looking sarcophagus behind the altar and frees the demon within. Who then goes and possesses a crippled boy called Cheche (Billy Crawford), miraculously healing him in the process.

Cheche as demon, with Father Merrin

And this is where the film gets interesting - because unlike poor old Regan, ravaged and degraded by her liaison with Lucifer, being possessed is the best thing that ever happens to poor old Cheche. His limbs straighten, his leprous wounds heal and, hey, he learns to fly. No pea soup or vile obscenities here: Cheche is refined, perfected by his experience. Seemingly. But the Devil, don't forget, is the father of lies: in mending the body, the soul is destroyed, and the evil must be cast out. Step up Father Merrin in his dog collar and cassock. and the rest, I guess is history.

Back in 1973, The Exorcist played on fears of the disintegration of the family unit and the loss of spirituality in a morally bankrupt and degenerate world, as Regan's single parent working mum looks on indulgently while her daughter dabbles with ouija boards, then packs her off to have her brain scanned when she displays signs of demonic possession. But thirty years on, what does this prequel say about today's society? Could Cheche's miraculous recovery symbolise our increasing emphasis on external form and figure, at the expense dignity, health and truth? Is it just a coincidence that Satan tempts Merrin with the modern panacea for all ills: apathy, the ability not to care?

Okay, perhaps that's stretching it a bit, but I'm sure it's not reading too much into the film to point out that the overbearing presence of the British army in post war Africa holds clear parallels to the invasion of Iraq. Completely unable to comprehend the rites and mores of the local tribes, the colonial forces, called in to protect Merrin's historic find, throw their weight around with a clumsy cruelty that at one point directly echoes the inhumanity of the Nazis. Blimey.

But. is it scary? Well no, not really, but as Schrader is at pains to point out, it was never really meant to be. Any creepy moments (and yes, there are some - the carnivorous cows are particularly disturbing) are there not simply to freak us out, but form an integral part of the story. This is a film for grown ups, not for back row of the late night picture show teenagers (stand up and be counted House of Wax, Boogeyman and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake). Okay, Dominion is a little slow, brooding and wordy; some of the characters are fairly blatant stereotypes (particularly the British soldiers - although the film is worth seeing just for Ralph 'Camberwell Carrot' Brown's marvellous Sergeant Major impression) and such CGI as there is is hardly top notch. But that doesn't stop it being an absorbing, interesting and occasionally chilling film.

The Exorcist is a film that invades the mind. Watching it is actually rather like being possessed: once you've seen it, you're never free of it. I still occasionally wake up in the middle of the night, think about Regan and freeze in a cold sweat. I'm not sure Dominion will have the same after effect, but I am fairly sure it will stay in my mind.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is not receiving a cinema release, but will be out on DVD this October.

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