ZERO out of Five Skulls
Hear that “clunk”? That’s the sound of the bar hitting the floor.
In a shocking display of poor judgment (and an apparent attempt to dispute the whole “hindsight is 20/20” thing), the folks who nixed Paul Schrader’s prequel to the “Exorcist” and had Renny Harlin do it over have decided to show us all exactly what it was that turned their stomachs in the first place. In doing so, they have provided us with both an insight into the business of filmmaking heretofore unavailable to civilians (generally, what’s buried stays buried and poor choices are not put up for public scrutiny) and one of the most flat-out ridiculous films to hit screens this year. And while part of me (the fun part) wants to recommend “Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist” purely for camp value, the responsible part just can’t let that happen.
But before I get too deep into it, let me say one thing: this film is screamingly funny. From the annoying, persistent music to the over-earnest acting to the hilariously bad special effects, just about every element is off-key, and the cumulative effect is staggering – think “Showgirls” with a demon possession (and Elizabeth Berkeley’s dancing doesn’t count). After the somber and fairly well-executed opening, “Dominion” goes completely off the deep end, sending the well-intentioned cast for a clumsy tumble down a steep slope of atrocious choices. I’ve never seen so many actors look legitimately embarrassed to be on screen – even the extras look like they know they’re flirting with career suicide. But honestly – this could be a fun movie in its own right, simply because every single scene is so monumentally ill-conceived and executed that it is impossible not to marvel at its freakishness. I had a great time, to be perfectly honest – but then again, I rubberneck at car accidents and enjoy “Craft Corner Death Match”.
So the basic story is this: Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) has run away from the church following a faith-challenging experience at the hands of the Nazis during the occupation of his town. He’s been working on archeological digs in Africa, and on his current project has been assigned missionary Father Francis (Gabriel Mann) to help out and keep an eye on him. We also have Major Granville (Julian Wadham), a starched British Military officer who’s for some reason oddly concerned with Merrin’s behavior. When on a dig in the desert, Merrin and his army of native workers uncover an entire church that appears to have been buried intentionally almost immediately following construction. Further investigation reveals that it seems to have been built to keep something down, as evidenced by the giant statues of angels with down-pointed spears and artwork depicting Lucifer’s fall from grace. Minimal exploration reveals a staircase leading down to a subterranean demonic temple, which is just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life (the fact that these people went to the trouble of building a giant stone church over a temple and then burying the entire mess to trap a demon without even bothering to lock the door to the underground lair is simply staggering). Rather than risk potential looting of the temple by the locals, Francis calls in Granville and his goons as guards… who then proceed to loot the temple themselves (or at least try to).
Meanwhile a local cripple, Cheche (international pop sensation Billy Crawford – no, seriously…), has been hanging around the dig and getting beat up by the locals, who think that he is cursed. Sure enough, Cheche has some sort of breakdown and is placed under the care of Rachel, the local doctor (Clara Bellar), who clearly does not have the soft skills required to care for a possessed person, despite being perfectly adept at wrapping a bandage. Cheche twitches a lot and becomes noticeably less cripple-y (his leg is reset and heals at an accelerated rate; his palsied arm straightens itself; his make-up artist finds a more flattering shade of foundation), which will no doubt confuse fans of the other “Exorcist” films: isn’t being possessed by Pazuzu supposed to be a bit hard on your system? Just look at what happened to that poor little girl in the original. Here, Cheche essentially goes through a demon-fueled Extreme Makeover, and winds up not covered in green vomit with the mouth of a trucker, but rather bathed in gold glitter and wearing a diaper.
I’m not kidding.
The climactic faceoff between Marrin and Cheche literally involves a suddenly hairless and satin-skinned Cheche floating on air and languishing around the temple like a cabana boy on his lunch break – I seriously thought I was watching outtakes from “Stargate”. Now, I totally get that they were going for something different here in trying to make the devil seem seductive rather than destructive – it sounds great as a concept, but it just isn’t cinematic. A good deal of the power of the first film came from the visceral suckerpunches that the demon threw poor young Regan – here there’s no sense of urgency, danger, or anything even remotely resembling suspense. There’s just a hairless pop singer in body makeup looking like some sort of escaped Cirque de Soleil dancer on a hell of an ecstasy bender.
And really, folks – this is just the tip of the iceberg. Literally everything about this film is a mistake, and even the strong points (like Starsgard’s solid performance) feel like tragic missteps by association. The CGI is easily the worst I’ve ever seen in a film of this size (if you thought the hyenas in “Exorcist: The Beginning” were bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet – and these just stand still!). There’s a bit near the end when the sky suddenly lights up with lasers as if a spaceship were landing (which would actually have been a welcome diversion), and stays that way for a good 10 minutes – it’s jaw-dropping. And the film looks just awful, I’m sorry to say (I won’t hold this against Vittorio Storaro, who has lensed some of the most beautiful films ever made – I really don’t think he had much to work with); the entire movie is shot in medium close-ups, with little or no attention paid to the surroundings or landscape. The result looks more like a made-for-Sci-Fi-Channel soundstage cheapie than a feature film, and is completely lacking in atmosphere. Any real discussion of the issues at hand (the presence of evil in all men, the loss of faith) is undermined by the stagey direction and silly setpieces, and honestly, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before and much more effectively. The claims that this is a more “intellectual” or “mature” horror film are preposterous — there’s more intellectual material in an installation of “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, and you might actually get scared once or twice to boot.
I could go on and on, lingering on Rachel’s big climactic scene (a mascara freak-out on par with Drew Barrymore’s in “Mad Love”) or the well-intentioned but embarrassing performance of Gabriel Mann, whose scenes with the village children and Cheche are downright hilarious. Even the dollops of gore (a crucifixion, a beheading, a shocking yet hilarious maggot-covered stillborn) are so poorly delivered that they’re more like spoofs of disturbing images than the real thing, and the “surreal” dream sequences are flat-out pretentious. The bottom line: Schrader has no concept of what a horror or suspense film is all about, so instead of wonder, chills, and existential dread, we get hammy dialogue delivered on leftover sets from “The Scorpion King”. And nothing against the man – I loved “Auto Focus” and “The Comfort of Strangers”. But here Schrader is a square peg in a round franchise, and the results suffer from the mismatch.
But I’ll stop now and say this – I will most likely go back to see “Dominion” again, purely for laughs. Unlike the last misfire of this magnitude – “The Phantom of the Opera” – “Dominion” is actually quite entertaining in its hideousness (whereas “Phantom” was just plain intolerable). I seriously wouldn’t be surprised to see theatres screening this stinker at midnight for years to come – maybe on a double-bill with “Exorcist II: The Heretic”, which was up to this point the most hilariously misguided film of the series. And really – how often does a studio pick open one of its own scabs and let you look at what’s underneath? If you’re the kind of person who can’t help peeking, you won’t be disappointed.