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Warner Home Video presents
Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2004)

"I believed God lets us decide between good and evil. I chose good. Evil happened."
- Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: October 25, 2005

Stars: Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Gabriel Mann
Other Stars: Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford, Ralph Brown, Julian Wadham, Andrew French
Director: Paul Schrader

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and disturbing images
Run Time: 01h:55m:47s
Release Date: October 25, 2005
UPC: 012569736061
Genre: horror


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- BB-A- B-

DVD Review

For movie geeks, here's one of those films that has a rather interesting behind-the-scenes history. Director Paul Schrader (Cat People) was signed on to handle the prequel to one of the most infamously celebrated horror classics of all time, and apparently his somber, relatively possession-free take on the William Wisher/Caleb Carr screenplay was met with a wave general malaise from Warner Brothers. The studio quickly brought in action scion Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) to rework things into a more heady genre brew, eventually turning into the mediocre, but noisier Exorcist: The Beginning.

Now we finally get to see Schrader's original vision, a beautifully striking and dramatic look at the early days of Father Merrin, who in the William Friedkin film was played so stoically by Max von Sydow. Schrader has Stellan Skarsgård playing a younger, but just as deeply troubled Merrin, with the story set in the 1940s as the priest loses his faith after a horrific Nazi atrocity and finds himself in British-occupied East Africa on an archeological dig. A strangely intact temple of sorts is unearthed that forces an inevitable confrontation with something that should have stayed buried, but the real emotional heart of the story is that of Merrin and his deep struggles to reclaim his faith. It takes the driven spirit of Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), a young missionary priest, to continue to hammer away at his "crisis of faith", something that makes the older Merrin in Friedkin's The Exorcist seem even more determined.

It was intriguing to watch Skarsgård, because he so resembles a young Von Sydow in a number of ways that I had no problem believing or accepting this was the same character, only younger. Skarsgård is contemplative, brooding and somber, and small things such as the way he moves and carries himself have waves of subtle, reserved power, even when he isn't doing anything especially exorcist-ish. In fact, much of the film follows him as tries to play peacemaker with an aggressive British army and an equally aggressive tribe who differ on some fundamental issues, all stretched between the religion-hued possession storyline of strange crippled boy (Billy Crawford) who undergoes a miracle cure, or so it would seem.

It's too bad this one is marketed as horror, because it really isn't, despite the obligatory exorcism sequence that often feels like it should be in another film entirely. Likewise with some jarringly horrible CG hyenas that look and move with weightless, unnatural movements meant to look real, which sadly end up looking like a subpar video game effect in a film that doesn't really need them at all to add to an already compelling narrative.

Those small miscues aside, what Schrader has done is make more of a character piece about Merrin, and no doubt that made Warner Brothers a little gunshy about making this the formal prequel, hence the Harlin reinvention. I'll admit this one caught me off guard, in part due to Schrader's sometimes meandering approach. I expected something more raucous, and once I settled into his flow, I found Dominion to be a bleakly appealing human drama rather than a horror film.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The image transfer—a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen print—is a little sloppy in spots, marred by an excess of white specks that seem to get more pronounced as the film progresses. That mars an otherwise slightly above average treatment during most of the runtime, aside from some extremely minor edge enhancement and infrequently murky black levels during night scenes. Those minor beefs notwithstanding, the color rendering is first rate, with strong, natural fleshtones, most striking in daylight sequences.

It seems that Warner Bros. could have gussied up the transfer on this one, but when this one's good, it's good.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The only audio track (aside from the commentary) is a fine, if not surprisingly modest 5.1 Dolby Digital surround mix that doesn't overdo the typical horror theatrics of loud stingers and excessive aural trickery. Small elements like the distant roar of thunder or the clanging of shovels are used to good effect here, giving some wide range to the soundstage. Dialogue is crystal clear throughout, and when Schrader infrequently dabbles in the possessed mutterings the swirly rear channel effects are equally clean. Subwoofer activity is modest, but things like gunshots or heavy temple doors have a deep, rich timbre.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
6 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Paul Schrader
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Still Gallery
Extras Review: The skimpy extras from Warner Bros. kind of shortchange this curious film with the storied history. The main supplement for this release is a commentary track from director Paul Schrader, and while I would have liked if he delved into the studio rift a little more, the information about the production is generally insightful. The downside is that Schrader isn't the most riveting speaker, and his frequent silent gaps and comments like "I don't have much to say about this" make mining the good parts somewhat more of a challenge. Still, it is worth a listen.

A collection of six short Deleted Scenes (05m:21s) don't offer much in the way of anything new, and a quick Still Gallery of fifteen images represents the only other extra.

The disc is cut into 28 chapters, with optional subtitles in English, French or Spanish.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

I'm glad Warner Bros. thought to release Paul Schrader's prequel, because I think it will make for nerdy fun for fans to compare and contrast this intelligent film with the retooled and somewhat splashier Renny Harlin version known as Exorcist: The Beginning.

A little slow-moving in spots, Schrader's take is still a beautiful thing to look at, and Stellan Skarsgârd gives a great performance in a film that is unfairly lumped into the horror genre (despite the character possessed by Satanic darkness). Skarsgârd is excellent, making this an unexpectedly moving story of redemptive faith rather than outright horror.

Recommended.

 


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