Dir. Paul Schrader, US, 2005, 117mins
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Billy Crawford
If you don’t already know the story behind Dominion, let me explain. When someone important at Morgan Creek Productions had the idea of filling out the back story to The Exorcist, they asked Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, and a director in his own right) to direct a tale written by William Wisher Jr. This story was meant to provide an explanation for Father Merrin’s personal involvement with the Devil, to explore his own, ahem, inner demons. However, upon delivering the completed film to deeply unimpressed executives Schrader was sacked, new writers drafted in and Renny Harlin (the man responsible for Cutthroat Island) brought on board as director. The film was re-shot, with the same storyline, crew and almost identical cast. This is hardly an unheard of turn of events in the anxious, quality-controlled Hollywood of today, but what is unusual is the decision by Warner Bros to release Schrader’s version now, alongside Harlin’s effort. For the record, Harlin’s version was met with critical derision, with many reviewers’ responding to the schlock and gore of this apparently unsubtle work by citing Schrader’s mythical predecessor (supposedly too cerebral and quietly creepy for release) as probably the superior film.
However, the case is not as cut and dried as all that. It is clear that Schrader is trying to make ambitious psychological points in his movie, yet it is hard to actually say quite what those points are. The plot is roughly as follows: Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård), having lost his faith following the conscience-defeating ordeal he was forced into by the Nazis, is working on an archaeological dig in…‘Africa’. Or East Africa to be precise. Also there is a naïve but kindly young American priest, determined to bring Christianity and western schooling to the villagers, a Jewish nurse with her own tragic history, and a battalion of the British Army. When Merrin uncovers a strangely decorated church, buried under the sand, he unleashes a force that uses the underlying tensions in the village to wreak horror and havoc. Merrin is a man whose confidence in God has been broken, along with his faith in ‘evil’ as a force outside of human nature. In the course of his struggle with the demon, he begins to feel again the need to fight evil, in whatever form it may come. These are weighty subjects: British colonial violence and guilt, missionary zeal, the difficulty for Africans to resist these forces and the criticism of their culture as backward. What the film seeks to do is to demythologise cultural differences by drawing parallels between apparently disparate situations. For example, the British Colonel who shoots a villager to keep order is tortured by his actions in the same way that Merrin is haunted by the sacrifices of human life he was forced to make in Nazi occupied Holland. However, the treatment of these topics is neither subtle or deep, and the clichéd treatment of a particular African way of life (vague rituals, spear carrying and casting out of the lame and deformed) mean that a sincere parallel is impossible, since the film obviously cannot really conceive of a world beyond Anglo-Christian values.
On the scary front, although a few moments of genuine terror are achieved, the film spreads itself too thinly to really try to scare, and is not helped by lacklustre CGI. It remains a valiant attempt to create an aesthetically new, intellectually challenging horror film, especially since it questions the use of nonsensical ‘African black magic’ in Hollywood desert-set films (take note, The Mummy etc) and for that it should be praised. But, unfortunately, it does not deliver on its ambitious promises. Saying that, I have not seen the Harlin version, so all may well be forgiven.
Dominion is available to buy for £15.99. Features include a commentary by director Paul Schrader, deleted scenes and a stills gallery