The disaster of the prequel to ‘The Exorcist’: two versions were made and neither convinced

In 2004 it hit theaters The Exorcist: The Beginning directed by Renny Harlin. A prequel that replaced the one Paul Schrader, previously buried by the studio. But the failure of Harlin’s version led to Schrader’s film being released on home video in 2005 under the title Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.

The aftermath of The Exorcist have always seemed to suffer the same fate as the victims who cross the path of Pazuzu, the demon from the original film directed by William Friedkin and released 50 years ago. The Exorcist II: The Heretic, directed by John Boorman, It was a psychedelic delirium intoxicated with philosophy new age that although daring in its approach, he failed in his tone involuntarily camp, especially when compared to the mastery of the original film.

Such was the failure of said sequel (one of the great failures of Hollywood in the 70s), that the franchise would not return until 13 years later, when the writer of the original novel himself, William Peter Blatty would be in charge of directing and writing the film adaptation of his original work, titled Legion. But whether it was due to Blatty’s inexperience as a film director, his poor ability to manage and relate to the film’s technical team or due to the changes and reshoots that gave rise to the version released in theaters in 1990, the truth is that Friedkin’s shadow was too long for deliveries that did not receive the approval of the public and critics.

But all the previous disasters would pale with the arrival of a fourth installment in 2004 that would be located in the chronology of the saga thirty years before the events of the original installment. In it, we would follow a young father Karras (the character played by Max Von Sydow in the first installment), reminiscent of that prologue in Iraq with which Friedkin’s film began. A film that he would direct Paul Schrader but what I would never reach the rooms, replaced by a version directed by Renny Harlin. What happened to make this happen?

Paul Schrader’s film was never released in theaters.

From Frankenheimer to Schrader

The first director involved in the project was the filmmaker John Frankenheimer from a script by the novelist Caleb Carr (who would rewrite a rejected draft script in 2001, written by screenwriter William Wisher Jr. and who was going to direct Tom McLoughlin in the late 90s) and the actor interested in playing the young Father Karras was Liam Neeson. But Frankenheimer’s health problems made him ended up retiring from directing the film, something that Neeson would also end up doing.

That’s when Paul Schrader comes into the equation. He reads Carr’s script, he is interested, although modifies some passages of it, adding others of his own (something that would earn him the enmity of Caleb Carr, as Schrader would later say) and he decides to film it, accompanied by the photograph of Vittorio Storaro and replacing Liam Neeson with Stellan Skarsgaard.

But after filming the film in Morocco for six weeks and the conversation that Schrader had with those in charge of the Morgan Creek production company, both parties decided that the film It was not to resemble Friedkin’s original in the least. Schrader considered it unsurpassed and had been endlessly imitated for the next three decades, minimizing its capacity for wonder and terror. An agreement that was broken when the filmmaker presented his first cut of the film to the studio and they did not like it, considering that it lacked terror and scares, something that both parties had agreed upon when the filmmaker decided to take on the project.

Stellan Skarsgard starred in both 'The Exorcist' prequels
Stellan Skarsgard starred in both ‘The Exorcist’ prequels

Schrader’s vision of terror

And seen in perspective, Schrader’s version fits perfectly into the director’s filmography. Of course it is not his best work (later we will talk about how and under what conditions the film reaches its release) but Schrader knows how to integrate it into his interests and obsessions, especially those about guilt and regret, as can be seen in his work as a screenwriter (Wild bull) or in films directed by him as The priest either The card counter, to mention some of his most recent works.

Schrader starts the tape with the greatest sin of Father Karras, his inaction and indirect guilt in the face of the atrocities of Nazi Germany during World War II. A trauma that accompanies him after the war and that explodes two years later when he arrives in a town in Kenya, controlled by the British army, to investigate a buried Byzantine church found during an excavation. Thus, the presence of the demon Pazuzu, serves as a metaphor for the horror of colonialism, of the inaction of men and the atrocities that the first world has committed in the third.

Of course there are demonic possessions, supernatural elements, and palpable horror in Schrader’s film. But what there is not are the so-called jump scares which ironically the studio and filmmaker had agreed upon. The problem was that Schrader couldn’t do anything, since the studio wanted him to shoot new sequences. to add more terror and scares to his daring and particular approach to the myths of The Exorcist. Schrader refused to do so. (especially because, as Schrader commented, those sequences did not exist in the script he filmed and for which he was hired) and the studio immediately fired him, making him a scapegoat guilty of the production disaster, helped by a resentful Caleb Carr who began to spread hoaxes about the filming and Schrader’s attitude during it.

The demands of the study led to the creation of two versions.
The demands of the study led to the creation of two versions.

From Schrader to Harlin

Schrader’s replacement was Renny Harlin, a Finnish filmmaker who had triumphed in Hollywood between the late 80s and early 90s, with titles such as Nightmare on Elm Street 4, The Jungle 2: Red Alert and Maximum Risk, and that would crash for a excess megalomania in 1995 with the premiere of The island of severed heads, one of the great failures of American cinema of the 90s and which would end up sinking the Carolco production company.

Harlin would not be responsible for patching and adding elements that Morgan Creek claimed were missing from Schrader’s version, but I would directly remake it from scratch, maintaining only Schrader’s version of its protagonist Stellan Skarsgaard (Harlin’s friend and with whom he had collaborated on Deep Blue Sea) and his director of photography, Vittorio Storaro. And the film would change as a whole, adding everything they thought was missing from Schrader’s version.

The two versions of the prequel to 'The Exorcist' are different from each other.
The two versions of the prequel to ‘The Exorcist’ are different from each other.

The result, an unmitigated disaster. From the calm, contemplative and melancholic tone of the Schrader version to a z-series version of an adventure Indiana Jones with various effects trademark of the Harlin house, a tortuous use from flashbacks to tell the trauma of Father Karras and represented directly in the first sequence of the Schrader version. Or a sexualized look at his female protagonist, almost straight out of a standard slasher, inversely proportional to the way it is filmed in Schrader’s film.

Without forgetting that the conflict between the native population and the colonialists in Schrader’s version does not revel in the violence inflicted by the latter on the former, something that Harlin delights in. And most important of all: Harlin’s version fails to evoke that “terror” that the studio executives asked for, turning it into pure fireworks. On the other hand, Schrader’s version, although he does not intentionally seek horror and chills, what he does achieve is to create a progressively unhealthy atmosphere.

The creation of two different films generated numerous controversies.
The creation of two different films generated numerous controversies.

‘Dominion’: saving the furniture

Such was the disaster of Harlin’s version that Even Vittorio Storaro himself was scalded, when the decision to change the film’s projection format did not match the shooting format, preventing him from making the necessary adjustments and destroying his work in the process. The Exorcist: The Beginning It was an artistic and commercial failure when it hit theaters in 2004.

To try to save itself from the shipwreck, Morgan Creek decided to recover Schrader’s mount and release it directly in DVD format. Something that would happen in 2005, renaming it as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (in Spain retitled as The Exorcist: The Origin. The banned version), to differentiate it from that The Exorcist: The Beginning which was Harlin’s version, although curiously it was the name chosen as the original title for Schrader’s version. A tortuous path that would allow fans to witness first-hand how the business decisions of the studios They are capable of destroying the personal vision of a filmmaker.

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