I just saw this a couple of nights ago at a media screening in New York. There are no spoilers in this review.
Just to preface this, I am a HUGE fan of the Exorcist. It is the greatest horror movie ever made, and perhaps one of the greatest films ever made period. With no major expectations, I saw the Harlin version last year just hoping for a somewhat scary sequel movie. I cannot tell you how irritated I was by it. I was so annoyed that I actually wrote a letter of complaint to Morgan Creek Pictures demanding my money back. What bothered me the most is that Exorcist: The Beginning made no effort to keep the same aesthetics as the original. The 1973 classic had very little gore or special effects. It was more about strong directing, good sound editing, and building mood and atmosphere. Harlin's version, on the other hand, was more of an action movie along the lines of The Mummy or Van Helsing, only with more R rated thrills: loads of gore, loads of special effects, none of it the least bit scary.
Well, once I found out about the Paul Schrader version I became obsessed with wanting to see it. From what I heard it was more in the spirit of the original Exorcist and more of a "thinking man's film". Plus it was written by Caleb Carr, author of one of my favorite novels: The Alienist. I was even more excited when I found out they were releasing it in the theaters this year.
So onto my review...
I wasn't exactly "blown away" by Dominion, but it's 100 times better than "The Beginning". It at least maintains those aesthetics that I described above. It's not a straight up horror movie, there's probably only 2 or 3 real scares in the whole film, but those scares are far more terrifying than any of the cheap fun house type thrills that Harlin's version has to offer.
Although the big scares are minimal, there's loads of creepiness in the movie. It manages to make you feel uneasy the whole way through. I didn't have a hard time falling asleep that night, but I did wake up in the middle of the night kind of bothered thinking about some of the weird images that were burned in my brain.
From the beginning, what I liked immediately is that it was kind of grainy and looked like a 15 or 20 year old movie. There was something old fashioned about the style of film-making which made me feel like I truly was in Africa during the 1940s....much more so than the other slick Hollywood version. The cinematography is excellent. Much like a David Lynch film, you need to see it on the big screen because there's so much detail to enjoy that can be missed on a small television screen. My favorite scenes revolve around the archaeological expedition of an ancient temple buried in Africa. As they're exploring the catacombs under the temple, there's some bizarre faces carved into the rock. They don't jump out and say, "boo!" but they creep you out as your eyes discover them on their own terms.
I definitely took this version much more seriously. It's a very emotional film: many scenes managed to make me feel upset, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes even disturbed. Even simple scenes like people getting shot were so much more upsetting in their treatment. It also was successful in getting me to think about god, religion, and faith the same way that the first Exorcist did.
Of course Dominion does have it's flaws:
-Some of the acting could have been better and I can understand the need to do some recasting. The Nazi officer in the beginning wasn't the least bit intimidating. And Father Merrin's assistant Father Francis had sort of a Keanu Reeves quality about him. That's probably the biggest advantage that the first Exorcist has over this film. When you watch that movie, the actors are much more convincingly terrified. And that's what makes a great horror movie. Fear is a learned response. If the viewer is convinced that the actor is scared, then he/she gets scared, too. There's no substitute for good acting, not with all the special effects in the world.
-There's very little special effects in this movie, but the few scenes that do have CGI are really bad. There is no reason to use computer effects to portray animals such as jackals, cattle, scorpions, etc. Get the real thing or use puppetry. This movie did not need special effects.
-The ending climax scene, the confrontation between Father Merrin and the devil, could have used a little bit more intensity. I felt like he got through that scene much too easily, considering that in the first Exorcist, one priest died and the other was brought to near death during the exorcism. Stellan Skarsgard didn't even break a sweat! William Friedkin would have worked him to the ground. This scene kind of reminded me of a Star Trek episode.
If you are at all interested (and are still reading this), these are my personal letter grades to the Exorcist films I have seen:
Exorcist (1973) A+, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) F, Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) B-
Although not perfect, I think 75% of Dominion was salvageable. There was no reason to scrap it and make an entirely different, much worse version. With some minor changes, Dominion could have been raised a whole letter grade into a very scary, very respectable, and probably very successful installment into the Exorcist franchise and at much less cost, too.