In The War Between Exorcist Prequels, There Was A Clear Winner

William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" is one of the best horror movies ever made, which makes it by extension one of the best movies ever made at all. But it's not just a powerful dramatic exploration of faith in an increasingly secular society, and it's not just a terrifically scary motion picture that stunned audiences; it was also a gigantic mega-blockbuster by any reasonable measure. If you adjust for inflation to determine how much "The Exorcist" would have made theatrically at today's ticket prices, you'll find it would have made over a billion dollars domestically, ranking it the ninth-highest-grossing movie in the history of the American box office. That's more than "Avengers: Endgame" or "Avatar."

So regardless of how excellent the original film was, "The Exorcist" was still a huge financial success, and we all know what happens to huge financial successes — they get sequels. And "The Exorcist" had some very strange sequels. "Exorcist II: The Heretic" is one of the most baffling horror movies ever made, and time still hasn't unlocked all its gonzo, and frankly embarrassing mysteries. "The Exorcist III" wasn't very well-received at first, but now it's considered nearly as good as the original. As well it should be. It's brilliant. 

The sequels may be weird journeys, but the saga of the prequel, "The Exorcist: The Beginning," and the other prequel, "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," is a proper trip through Hollywood Hell. In the end, both films were critically disregarded, and both were financial duds. But only one of them now ranks among the best movies in the series. With David Gordon Green's new sequel trilogy on the horizon, it's time to dive back into the underexplored prequels.

The trials of Schrader and Harlin

The horror genre was experiencing a resurgence at the turn of the 21st century, thanks in no small part to the success of "Scream," its copycats, and lucrative sequels to previously moribund franchises like "Bride of Chucky" and "Halloween H20." A return to one of the most successful and celebrated horror series in Hollywood history was inevitable, so Warner Bros. enlisted Paul Schrader, the writer of "Taxi Driver" and director of the recent Oscar-nominee "The Affliction" to direct a prequel about Father Merrin, played memorably by Max von Sydow in the original movie, performing his first exorcism.

Co-written by William Wisher Jr. ("Terminator 2") and celebrated novelist Caleb Carr ("The Alienist"), and starring Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin, Schrader's film went into and ultimately completed production, but was never finished. The studio thought early cuts of the movie weren't scary enough, so they eventually decided to scrap Schrader's version almost entirely, enlisting "Deep Blue Sea" and "Die Hard 2" director Renny Harlin to reshoot the majority of the footage from a screenplay rewritten by Harlin and Skip Woods ("Swordfish").

Harlin's version, "The Exorcist: The Beginning" was full of jump scares and gross-out moments, and grossed an underwhelming $78.1 million off a (now very much ballooned) budget of over $90 million. So nine months after Harlin's version got a critical drubbing, and with the story of Schrader's alternate cut now well known, the director was permitted to finish his version of the movie. But with only a short amount of time and just $35,000 to finish his film, which still needed special effects and a score, Schrader's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" also seemed potentially doomed. It was barely released. Critics didn't much like the new version either.

The outclassed exorcism

Renny Harlin's "The Exorcist: The Beginning" is very much the Saturday morning matinee version of the story both films tell. In this version, Skarsgård plays Merrin, a priest who left the church after a tragedy in World War II, who gets hired to infiltrate an archaeological dig in East Africa in the late 1940s. His mission is to bring back a talisman of Pazuzu, the demon from the original two "Exorcist" movies, whose visage would be well known to fans of the series.

Merrin finds the site to be an unholy church, allegedly built at the site where Lucifer fell to Earth. Meanwhile, he's tempted to romance by a local doctor, played by Izabella Scorupco ("Goldeneye"), and discovers that a local child whose brother was eaten by bloodthirsty hyenas — CGI creations that looked bad then and look a lot worse now — may be possessed by the devil. Meanwhile, tensions rise between a local tribe and the colonialist British military, probably due to demonic influence.

Harlin's film features gross-out pustules, easter eggs to the original movies, and a prologue featuring a massacre during the Crusades. It's the bigger, flashier, and sillier of the two, culminating in an unconvincing twist and a series of altercations between Merrin and a demon which are increasingly laughable. It ends with the devil running at Merrin for a couple of minutes while Merrin and a little kid scream holy scripture until the demon is like, "Oh right, never mind," and stops.

It's the "Exorcist" prequel where you can safely make out with your date in the back of the theater without feeling like you missed anything. That it's not the worst film in the series says a lot more about "Exorcist II: The Heretic" than it does about "The Beginning."

Possession is only 1/10th of the draw

Paul Schrader's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" also has flaws, but a lot of them stem from post-production woes. The effects are still shoddy — although at least Schrader's rushed final version has an excuse — and yes, it's slow compared to its horror contemporaries. But in a world where indie powerhouse A24 has made serious dramas about wrestling with trauma that are only spiked by some horror elements into a popular horror genre all their own, "Dominion" feels surprisingly modern. Except for the lousy CG and inconsistent score.

Schrader's version doesn't find Merrin enlisted by a mysterious organization with a vague scheme regarding the demon from "The Exorcist." He's the archaeologist who discovered the unholy site in the first place, who hasn't left the church but is on sabbatical, wrestling with his faith because Nazis forced him to choose ten people to be senselessly murdered, in order to save everyone else in his town. He doesn't have a particularly romantic subplot with the doctor, just a shared understanding that both of them only survived World War II by making choices that scarred their souls.

"Dominion" isn't interested in fun. It's telling a story like the original "Exorcist," in which the influence of evil is insidious. If you turn your head to a slightly different angle, it wouldn't look like the work of the devil at all. The madness that besieges everyone looks an awful lot like the evils mankind perpetrated upon itself in World War II. Father Merrin responds to every moral question in "Dominion" with an educated response about human hypocrisy. He calls out the Vatican for its failings. He calls out the British for their colonialism. And when a grieving father asks if his murdered son is how God repays his faithful followers, Merrin hisses out an immediate, "Yes."

Insight in the garden of good and devil

"The Exorcist: The Beginning" is about the triumph of good over evil. "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" is about how goodness isn't triumphant. It's a much more complex perspective on human frailty, which suggests that the devil has genuine appeal even to the kind in spirit. He offers Merrin and the doctor the means to rewrite their own histories, to absolve themselves of their sins by reliving their lives and making different choices, proving that they were only ever abused pawns in an unfeeling god's design. But ironically, this gives Merrin strength. He learns that his actions, though themselves a tragedy, were the best he could do under horrible, unreasonable circumstances. He earns his own forgiveness.

Forgiving the moments where its post-production budget clearly failed it, "Dominion" is an exercise (exorcise?) in moral complexity. It lacks the intimacy of the original "Exorcist" but only because it's painting itself across a broader canvas, illustrating how the evil of weak-willed individuals cascades into larger tragedy. It's a film made by people who actually thought about what the story they were telling actually means. Its horrors are the horrors of the human soul. 

"The Exorcist: The Beginning" has a lot more pus and a lot more CG hyena attacks, and a head-scratchingly anticlimactic game of Red Rover. It's sound and fury signifying nothing. "Dominion" has twice as much fury and signifies a great deal about the human condition, even though the sound design and music are a little bit underwhelming.

With "The Exorcist III" finally finding its proper acclaim, it's finally time to declare that "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" is officially the most underrated movie in the series. An odd honor to be sure, but one with a positive legacy, where audiences usually do see the light in the end.