07 June 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: NEEDLESS PREQUELS

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: X-Men: First Class may or may not be the most ill-advised of the summer's superhero movies, but it's hard to argue that this story is screaming to be told, given how thoroughly the backstory was exposited in the earlier entries in the franchise. Then again, there can be worse things than having a modestly unnecessary prequel - such as having TWO inordinately unnecessary prequels competing with each other.

The story begins in the early '00s, when Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek decided, for reasons that are obvious if you're a studio exec, to produce a prequel to the iconic 1973 horror film The Exorcist. This was back in the days when Hollywood was so thoroughly strip-mined for ideas that the only projects which could get any kind of budget were remakes, reboots, and years-later sequels to established brand names, even when - especially when - there was no obvious artistic reason for that remake, reboot, or sequel to exist. Barbaric times.

Screenwriters William Wisher (a sometime collaborator of James Cameron's) and Caleb Carr were commissioned for a script that was called, initially, Exorcist: Dominion. John Frankenheimer was selected to direct, but stepped down (for health, presumably: he died not at all long thereafter). At this point, the studio made a silly, silly choice. See, they wanted one thing from Exorcist: Dominion: a slick, super-violent R-rated horror picture that would draw enough class from its title (for The Exorcist is nothing if not an unusually tasteful, meditative, and adult R-rated movie in which a 12-year-old violates herself with a crucifix) to seem like more than just the usual exploitation fare. To make this dream a reality, Morgan Creek tapped Paul Schrader, the living filmmaker most likely to latch onto the esoterica, moral ambiguity, and Catholic angst of the screenplay.

When, shockingly, Schrader's virtually-complete film - lacking only digital effects - was far more thoughtful and introspective and ungory than the producers had hoped for, he was unceremoniously fired, and replaced by Renny Harlin, a hack of inordinate hackery, but readily bent to the will of the moneymen.

Harlin's film started with a new script by Alexi Hawley, rehashing some of the ingredients of Wisher and Carr's original (they were given a story credit in return), removing one major character and reducing another to a spear-carrying part. The second and third biggest parts were swapped in prominence, and both recast (and one renamed). Shot on the same sets and reusing a tiny portion of footage (I've seen the figure as high as 10%, which is clearly not the case, unless Schrader shot many more scenes than he ended up using), Harlin's version, now titled Exorcist: The Beginning, was released in August, 2004 - not an auspicious month - and ended up tanking, with its $78 million worldwide gross not even covering the bloated budget that comes from shooting one movie twice in a row.

Thus it was that Warner's begrudgingly released Schrader's version; giving him $35,000 to complete the effects, the clumsily-named Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was dumped into a vanishingly tiny number of theaters on 20 May, 2005, the worst weekend of that entire calendar year; it was the day after the release of a certain Star Wars: Episode III, and thus was Dominion condemned to a fast, brutal death.

That leaves us with one of the most special privileges that any studio has afforded the viewer in many, many years: a chance to compare, head to head, two dramatically different versions of the same story, each driven by a different marketing need, directed by a pair of men whose relationship to the Hollywood sausage factory could not be more different. I'm going to start with Dominion, since it was the first one made; as The Beginning was largely a response to Schrader's film, it seems the intellectually honest thing to do.

* * * * *

We join events in progress in Holland in 1944, where the local SS officer (Antonie Kamerling) has rounded up every man, woman, and child of a small town into the central square, there to interrogate them as to who murdered a German soldier. Knowing that this information would be in the hands of the local priest, he calls that man out - and who should it be but our friend Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård, who was already older than Max von Sydow when he played the character almost three decades earlier). The SS officer forces Merrin to make a hideous choice: select ten villagers to die, or the Germans will execute the whole town.

This nightmarish event convinces Merrin that if God is still out there, then He is a cruel and capricious being, and to sort out his crisis of faith, the priest takes a sabbatical to pursue his other passion, archaeology. And it is in this capacity that we find him in 1947, in a small village in British East Africa. For such a tiny place, things are hopping: there's a new missionary around, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), a great fan of Merrin's writings; bigger still, the Brits have just found an ancient Christian church where there oughtn't be such a thing. The discovery of this structure has thrown the natives into a panic - they regard it as a harbinger of evil, given all of the terrible omens that have cropped up since its discovery, viz. hyenas coming out in the daytime, cattle devouring the corpses of other animals - and this is causing a headache for the very imperial, very racist Sergeant Major Harris (Ralph Brown).

Upon inspection, Merrin and Francis discover the church is hiding some secrets. It's built wrong: where the architecture and statuary of Christian churches generally emphasises upwards motion, towards heaven, all the angels decorating this church are point downward, as though they're protecting something. And this "something" is soon revealed to be an underground temple, a pagan site devoted to the Sumerian god Pazuzu (though listen for Pazuzu's name to be spoken, and you will listen in vain).

Things unspool not-so-quickly: there's a local boy, Cheche (Billy Crawford) who is hideously deformed, under the care of the local doctor, Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar), who as fate would have it is also a Holocaust survivor; she and Merrin bond more than is necessarily seemly for a man who, despite his current doubts, is still technically a Catholic priest. Francis begins to suspect that this boy is harboring an evil spirit, something Merring dismisses out of hand; meanwhile, the natives and the British are growing trigger-happy, and the horrible incident in which a baby is born dead, covered in maggots proves to be the breaking point: the locals, resentful at Harris's increasing megalomania, and convinced (not unreasonably, given the circumstances) that this new Christianity thing is just another weapon of cruelty and evil in the oppressors' toolbox, are about to blow. Eventually, the thing inside Cheche reveals itself, and Merrin must make the choice as to who he is and what he believes, if he is going to stop this evil.

Buried inside all of that is the meat and potatoes of the movie: Merrin and Francis's conversations about what God wants, why He acts as He does, and whether the existence of evil is proof that He doesn't give a shit about humanity. This clearly animates Schrader far more than the issues of possession and demons; for that matter, he's also a heck of a lot more interested in exploring the broken and despicable system of late-imperial colonialism, how it feeds intolerance and violence on both sides.

In short, Schrader would much rather tell a story about the evil of men than the evil of Satan. Though the demon, Pazuzu or whoever, certainly exists, and certainly feeds off the darkness growing around it, there is always a certain sense that the demon is rather a metaphor for the evil than the ultimate cause of it. After all, no Sumerian demon caused the massacre in that Dutch town, and it is that moment, not the opening of the crypt in the hidden church, that sets Merrin on his path and drives his arc - and it is undoubtedly his arc and none other that Dominion is chiefly concerned with. There are obvious links, visually and narratively, between Harris's treatment of the Africans and the SS officer; and it this evil that Merrin is primarily obsessed with, not with some paranormal beastie.

In fact, one could argue, and it would hold water, that Dominion isn't really a horror movie at all, but a treatise on the difficulty (and necessity) of keeping faith, with some horrific elements erratically thrown in: a couple of dream sequences here, some nicely creepy set design there. The exorcism itself is about as swift and painless as any such sequence ever has been in a movie, further suggesting that the conflict is never between Merrin and Pazuzu, but between Mister Merrin and Father Merrin.

So, a film right up Schrader's alley; and while I will admit freely that I haven't much use for the man (Taxi Driver works despite, not because of, his screenplay, and it's still the best thing he ever touched), the film he made is a lot more compelling than just another "demon making things fly around loudly" picture. "Compelling" is not absolutely the same thing as "good", and Dominion is riddled with flaws: there is a lot of unforgivable bad CGI, bad enough that it wouldn't past muster in a film by The Asylum, but that's what $35,000 buys you. More to the point, the depiction of the British vs. the natives is all kinds of problematic; the desire to point out, with honesty, the power imbalance in the colonial system falls rather apart in the face of how easily Schrader lapses into garden variety booga-booga tribal stereotypes (the scene where the warriors guzzle blood before going into battle is what sealed that one for me). And his disinterest in the horror sequences frequently comes across as out and out contempt for the very genre: the scenes in which Cheche's situation worsens don't even attempt to be frightening, and the Pazuzu temple is drastically overlit, robbing it of any but the smallest actual mood. Though this does not prevent the director from an absolutely unnecessary loving close-up of that maggotty fetus.

And yet, the parts of the film that work are so fascinating that it almost doesn't matter: Skarsgård is outstanding, and Mann does a good job matching him, making their frequent dialogue sequences far more dramatic than "a priest and a lapsed priest discuss theology" sounds like at all. And the final sequence is conducted with a sufficient flair for the apocalyptic - despite some more cheap CGI - that one can readily see the outline of how it is brilliant, even if it needed a bit more finishing. The footage, shot by no less a genius than Vittorio Storaro (Schrader somehow managed to convince him to abandon his beloved, and stupid, 2:1 Univsion aspect ratio for a more conventional and manageable 1.85:1), could do with a bit more color-correction, too, but the slow camera movements and broad shots certainly work in their current state, giving a nice sense of balance and stability to a world gone amok; a visual reminder, maybe, that whatever is going on, God doesn't let things get too out of control.

No less an authority than William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, gave Dominion his blessing, and this is not necessarily a good thing, in light of how wonderfully his 2000 special edition of the 1973 film, The Version You've Never Seen, managed to hack apart William Friedkin's elegant machine. But it is the case that Dominion is rather true to the spirit of what the original was driving at. Not all of the details line up, and it's frustrating that the prequel should be such a rehash of the material from the first film (a doubting priest mans up and puts his trust in God), but in its faltering, very over-serious way, this is a legitimate and honest attempt to grapple with the theological meaning of The Exorcist: the religiosity of the movie is more than a little suffocating at points, but it's thoughtfulness and sincerity always cut through the Schraderian excess and moral hand-wringing. I can't call it a success, but it is certainly an outstanding failure, an attempt to broaden the horizons of a stale genre with real discussion of the matters that consume its maker.

* * * * *

That is of course why it had to be thrown out. Let us give the Morgan Creek people their due: Dominion would have been a disaster at the box office. So from their end, The Beginning probably seemed like a smart bet. Stripped of everything that made it meaningful, if hectoring, the Exorcist prequel predictably turned into a screaming mess of over-the-top Satanic imagery and bombast, exactly what you would expect from Harlin, a director whose movies have always been chiefly marked not just by their barbaric editing and functional cinematography, but by the extraordinary noise accompanying their visual emptiness.

The opening tells us two things that will serve to explain just how much less ambitious and crappier The Beginning shall be than its cousin. First, there is only a small dollop of 1944 footage that reveals absolutely nothing of what happened, before we hop to 1949, to find Merrin (still Skarsgård) officially retired from the priest business - a detail suggesting that Harlin and Hawley don't have a very good a handle on how the Catholic Church works - working as an archaeologist in Cairo. This is because the information of that awful event during the war isn't going to serve as the backdrop for Merrin's story, the way it did in Dominion; it's instead going to be a garden-variety dark secret to be doled out in tiny doses, serving to tease the viewer along and come as a shock when it happens. Because a man's spiritual crisis isn't sexy, you see, and removing this knowledge until much later makes Merrin's crisis far less definite and meaningful.

Second, Harlin lets Storaro go right ahead with the 2:1, and indulges in some hellaciously pushy post-production color work to bathe everything in the movie with a golden hue (thankfully, in 2004, the dread orange 'n teal wasn't a thing yet, because Harlin is absolutely not the kind of filmmaker to let a thing like that go by). To grossly oversimplify things, 1.85:1 is the aspect ratio of human stories, good for close-ups and medium shots; wider ratios are for landscapes and group shots, and a sense of the "epic" that more often than not sacrifices our ability to connect so well with individual people.

This time around, Merrin is sent to the small village (which we are told now is in Kenya) at the behest of a private collector who has heard tell of an ancient church - more ancient than should be possible in that region - and hopes the ex-priest can find a certain specific artifact (a smaller version of the Pazuzu head as seen in the original Exorcist) there.

At the village, things are sort of the same and sort of different. Father Francis (James D'Arcy) is still the new missionary, but this time he's on a secret mission from Rome to find the truth behind an ancient conspiracy. Rachel has become Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a far more earthy version of the base doctor. Sgt. Maj. Harris (Brown, still) is there, but barely matters, and the whole matter of the British colonial impulse as sign of The Evil Men Do is pushed so far to the back it might not as well be there at all. Cheche is gone, replaced by Joseph (Remy Sweeney), the son of Jomo (Israel Aduramo), the native serving as translator; they're the first local family to convert to Christianity. They were both in the first movie, but not in nearly so important a capacity.

Gone as well is the vast bulk of the material about Merrin's crisis; instead he prods around the mysterious graves and temples, finding whatever clues he can to the place's wicked history, like a more self-loathing Indiana Jones. Skarsgård doesn't even try to hide how much less he cares about this iteration of the character, wearing a single expression of mildly worried confusion for most of the film, and not playing up Merrin's psychological pain at all - not that the screenplay gives him the chance.

Replacing all of it, we get lots of crazy, over-the-top resoundingly uninteresting horror film boilerplate. Noises bang as characters walk around (or in Sarah's case, take a shower), people turn around to find - gasp! - someone standing right behind him, there are dramatic camera angles meant to look threatening, the lights go out at convenient moments. There's violence - so much, not only including that same loving shot of the maggot-ridden fetus, but a scene that goes on twice as long as it possible should, in which Joseph's brother is torn apart by CGI hyenas, that look a bit better than their Dominion counterparts, but not nearly enough better. And of course, much gorier possession make-up, when the time comes, as well as a desecration of the church scene that is positively nauseating where Schrader's version was sort of disgusting but mostly refined.

And all of it done up in a visual language of profound excess, as only Storaro in his period of craziness with a director historically given to being busy without any reason for it could manage. But even that's not a patch on the slice-and-dice editing, meant to give the film a jagged edge, but only managing to leave it borderline-unwatchable. My favorite part is a scene of Merrin examining a paper; the shots cut from his face to the paper and back literally three times before he reacts, giving us a precisely mathematical definition of Harlin's aesthetic: he will not do in two shots what he can do in six.

It's all very clamorous and irritating and stupid, and an utter violation of anything that ever made The Exorcist memorable; there is nothing at all sophisticated or theologically profound - or theologically coherent - in The Beginning, just gaudy effects and things jumping out to say "boo!" every three minutes. It's tactless - if Schrader dabbles in racist depiction of Third World societies, Harlin luxuriates in it - and not at all scary. Dominion might be a flawed prequel, but The Beginning is so asinine it almost makes you wish the 1973 film didn't exist in the first place.

Reviews in this series
The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman, 1977)
The Exorcist III (Blatty, 1990)
The Exorcist Prequels:
-Exorcist: The Beginning (Harlin, 2004)
-Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (Schrader, 2005)

2 comments:

Neil Fulwood said...

"Renny Harlin, a hack of inordinate hackery."

Amen, brother!

James R said...

Does the aspect ratio make that much of a difference, though? Is there enough of a visible difference between 1.85:1 and Univision's 2:1 that it's noticeable when watching the two films but not measuring them more precisely by comparing DVD screen grabs? I haven't seen either version but I still have my doubts; it's not like, say, Storaro wanting to crop films he originally shot in scope ratio to Univision size, e.g. The Last Emperor. Or it could just be that I'm still using a CRT TV with overscan so I can't really tell anyway...