Sunday Scaries: Exorcising Paul Schrader’s Demons

So imagine it is the year 1997 and you’re James G. Robinson, co-founder of Morgan Creek Entertainment. You just saw Wes Craven revive the slasher genre the year prior, shocking an industry that had assumed since the end of the Cold War that those were permanently extinct. Suddenly, you see movement on reviving seemingly dead-and-buried horror franchises, including a twenty years later-sequel to Halloween and even a possible Friday the 13th / A Nightmare on Elm Street crossover. Your studio, meanwhile, had up to that point produced a box office bomb called Night Breed, and had bought the rights to The Exorcist in the 1980’s.

Ah ha! There’s your horror franchise revival. But hold on, the sequel was one of the most infamously terrible horror movies ever produced and while the William Peter Blatty-directed The Exorcist III was slightly better-received, it wasn’t a huge success, and the fans who did see it complained that it just didn’t “feel” like an Exorcist movie… despite Brad Dourif’s deeply unsettling depiction of the Gemini Killer, surely one of the flat-out scariest performances of the decade.

Content Warning: Grisly descriptions of murder.

But still, there has not been another installment of The Exorcist that has matched the “spirit” of the original in nearly a quarter-century. So why not give it another shot? But this time, go back. Make it a prequel. The MacNeils aren’t interesting before the events of the first movie, and Damien Karras pretty much has the origin of his crisis of faith spelled out in that movie, but what about Lankester Merrin? Yes, he would be a perfect protagonist for the prequel! Heck, one of the biggest gripes from fans of the book who were disappointed in the adaptation was that his part was cut down excessively, making the prologue scene in Iraq and Possessed Reagan’s taunts directed at him totally incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read the source material. This prequel could finally correct that!

So off you go, producer James G. Robinson, to hire director Tom McLoughlin John Frankenheimer Paul Schrader to bring this vision to life from a script by William Wisher, Jr. Caleb Carr Skip Woods Alexi Hawley and… oh, dear. Yes, those strikethroughs do indeed mean that this production went through quite a bit of development hell (I actually left out at least three other writers who did uncredited reworking of the script), with numerous directors and writers quitting the project due to creative disputes and even the originally cast Liam Neeson bailed out after a certain point. Eventually, though, Schrader was able to adapt Wisher and Carr’s screenplay into a feature film now starring the committed-if-somewhat-miscast Stellan Skarsgård after six weeks in Morocco, eight weeks in Rome, twice over the budget originally agreed upon… and the studio hated it.

Choosing Paul Schrader to helm what was originally titled Exorcist: Dominion after Frankenheimer had to drop out (sadly due to a declining and eventually fatal state of health) makes, at least, a little bit of sense. Unlike the director of The Exorcist II: The Heretic, the director of Affliction actually really liked The Exorcist and was committed to honoring the original vision of that first hit film. But if you have ever seen a movie directed by Paul Schrader, you already know full well that Schrader was of course into The Exorcist for its moral dubiety and spiritual angst, and was absolutely going to double-down on those and not the shocking sexual self-harm or religious body mutilation or gravely-voiced teen girls growling obscenities that Morgan Creek and distribution partner Warner Bros were trying to sell to a general audience looking to repeat that traumatic cinematic experience in the winter of 1973.

Warner Bros. Pictures

So of course it was scrapped, and then they decided to do something that was considered unprecedented at the time and not really surpassed until fairly recently: they not only fired Schrader, not only did they hire yet another screenwriter to radically rework the script again, they ended up pumping what was originally supposed to be a $35 million budget into over $90 million and hired dumb action movie extraordinaire Renny Harlin to reshoot nearly all of it to give them the lurid satanic spectacle they had originally wanted to distribute. They got what they wanted with Exorcist: The Beginning. I certainly can’t deny that. But the movie did not manage to break even and is justly remembered today as a noisy, incoherent haunted house carnival ride. I don’t care to say much about Harlin’s version because there’s nothing much to say about it: same kind of haphazard editing and bombast that makes up Harlin’s directorial signatures, only now with the added bonus of over-the-top violence and jump scares. The only other thing I want to point out about it is that this, like so many amateurly-written horror movies, makes the common mistake of treating critical information about a major character as something that needs to be concealed and then brought up near the climax as a Big Reveal, even though the concealment robs your audience of a reason to care about this character at all until it’s too late.

That critical information, by the way, is Lankester Merrin’s crisis of faith, which forms the backbone of the movie Schrader originally set out to make. Bless him, he lobbied hard for an additional $35,000 to polish up some uncompleted effects shots and then somehow convinced Warner Bros. to release his cut of the movie, now titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. They did, but being petty and resentful, decided to release it in a select few theaters the day after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith debuted, guaranteeing its failure at the box office.

In fairness, Schrader’s cut likely would have failed at the box office even if Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek threw their full support behind it. He has always been a filmmaker more concerned with expressing what’s on his mind than asking himself if more than a handful of people will actually pay to see him express those thoughts. Still, I will not challenge the consensus that his version is… I mean, not good, but still a hell of a lot better than Harlin’s version, and far more thoughtful and interesting to discuss.

Warner Bros. Pictures

This is apparent literally from the start, as the scene that takes place in Holland during the latter half of World War II makes up a full prologue instead of being hacked to ribbons and tossed out piecemeal to us like plot breadcrumbs in Exorcist: The Beginning. It kicks off Merrin’s creeping belief that God may not exist at all, and if he does, he is an uncaring and callous being who is not worthy of worship or even deference. It motivates his decision to take a sabbatical from the priesthood to pursue an archaeological project in British East Africa three years later, presented in Schrader’s film as a personal interest to distract from his internal turmoil instead of something Harlin and Hawley seem to believe priests regularly do as part of their job duties? Whatever, it does not matter, I said I wasn’t going to linger on that version!

Anyway, it becomes pretty clear in Schrader’s version, as the plot threads of the discovered ancient Christian temple in a way that, alarmingly, doesn’t make any historical or architectural sense, the vicious racist Sergeant Major Harris trying to expand Her Majesty’s imperialism on a neighboring village, a local doctor suffering a similar crisis of faith and bonding with Father Merrin over it, and a deformed young boy who may or may not be harboring the spirit of a demon (who may or may not be named Pazuzu because, unlike John Boorman, Schrader knows full well how silly that name sounds when you say it out loud) are threaded together, that Schrader is not nearly as interested in exorcising literal demons as he is discussing metaphorical ones. He wants this movie to confront the sins of postwar imperial colonialism more than the sins of Lucifer. Is the result a bit preachy and hectoring? Of course, it is. This is Paul Schrader we’re talking about, here. But it is impossible not to at least admire the fact that an outspoken fan of The Exorcist gets a chance to make an Exorcist movie and specifically avoids all of the surface-level horror elements to expand on the dramatic themes of what the existence of evil means for the existence of God, whether or not we can do anything to change our spiritual destinies, and if the light and darkness wrestling inside human beings is part of something outside of ourselves. The main conflict is not Lankester Merrin vs. Pazuzu, it’s Lankester Merrin’s faith vs. Lankester Merrin’s doubts. I opined last month that the dramaturgy of The Exorcist moved me far more than the horror, and seeing Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, it seems pretty clear to me that Schrader feels the same way.

Alas, I do not want to give off the impression that Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is good on its own terms. Most horror movies that can manage a bare minimum level of competence will easily leave Exorcist: The Beginning in their dust, but Schrader’s version still has a lot of big problems. $35,000 is nowhere near enough money for decent CGI in a feature film, and it shows here. The computer effects would have been laughably bad by the standards of 1995, let alone 2005, but that can be forgiven on account of behind-the-scenes misfortune. Less excusable is Schrader’s willingness to engage in some pretty offensive racial stereotypes in a movie ostensibly about the evils of racism. And while I admire his greater interest in the drama of this movie over the horror, when it does tip into outright horror sequences, I could feel Schrader’s direction go slack every time, to a palpable degree. Very little horror is fine, outright badly-directed horror is a problem.

Still, though, I would much rather see a movie that explores heady concepts in a fascinating misfire than a blandly effective genre outing that I’ll forget in a day or two. Though I have to admit the business rationale for rejecting it make sense from a mercenary angle, it’s still a shame that this wasn’t the version most audiences ended up seeing. But luckily for Schrader, he did eventually get to make and release the movie he originally set out to make, on his terms, fourteen years later. And that movie was First Reformed.


There are a stunning number of similarities between the crisis of faith suffered by Pastor Ernst Toller and Father Lankester Merrin, and the unrelentingly bleak atmosphere of First Reformed is far more harrowing than even the most graphic scenes of Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. The only substantive differences are their denominational perspectives and the political issues that Schrader is passionate about. In Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, it was colonialism. In First Reformed, it’s climate change. Oh hey, guess what was being talked about a lot around the time Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was finally dumped into theaters? I can just imagine Schrader taking an interest in this major scientific concern right around the time he was screwed over in his attempt to make a dark ecumenical drama, and then experiencing the same despair we all did when it became clear that we were not going to do nearly enough to mitigate the worst of what has become a full-on global catastrophe, and then give it another go. Only this time, not being connected to some artificially extended I.P. and swapping out the Catholicism for a deep dive into Calvinism: the most fatalistic of all Christian denominations, I am sure we can all agree. Thankfully, this second attempt actually vindicated him, not only actually being profitable but also being the vehicle for the only Academy Award nomination of his career.

Out of the ashes of Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist emerged an even better movie, on top of everyone agreeing in hindsight it was preferable to the nonsense his studio overlords demanded and Renny Harlin obliged. Not a bad legacy for the most recent installment of this troubled franchise.

It’s too bad Liam Neeson never got another chance to play a troubled priest in a harrowing religious drama, though.

Oh, wait…


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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these somewhat unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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