*. I kicked off my notes on First Reformed by saying that I hadn’t heard Paul Schrader’s name in a while. In fact, I hadn’t seen anything he’d done since Affliction (1997). Well, one of the things he’d done was this movie. Turns out I hadn’t missed much.
*. Dominion was, appropriately enough, a cursed production. John Frankenheimer was originally slated to direct, but he got sick and died so Paul Schrader replaced him. I’m not sure this was a wise choice, as Schrader didn’t seem much interested in directing a horror movie and was more attracted to the idea of following Father Merrin’s spiritual journey when an archeological dig in post-War Africa being watched over by some knobby-kneed British soldiers turns up a demon’s crypt.
*. The studio didn’t like what Schrader came up with, and so hired Renny Harlin to come in and do some re-shoots. What happened is that Harlin ended up making an entirely new picture, which was released as Exorcist: The Beginning. This was panned, and bombed with audiences, so they had to go back and get Schrader to finish his picture. They didn’t give him enough money, however, to do it right, which is apparently why, for example, there’s such a patchwork score and the CGI is so bad.
*. Apparently William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist) hated Harlin’s film but found this to be “a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work.” He was one of the few to think so, but I’ll grant it does look better when set alongside The Beginning (and it’s a fascinating exercise to watch the two back-to-back). Now for the record I actually enjoyed The Beginning a lot more than I did Dominion, but such a comparison is likely all you can say in that movie’s favour.
*. Given Schrader’s difficulties I was a bit surprised, and definitely intrigued, by the fact that the DVD has a commentary. I figured he’d have a lot to vent about. Alas, that is not how these things work. The commentary was recorded in early 2005 when he was still in the process of completing the final mix on the film so maybe he hadn’t experienced a full measure of frustration yet. More surprising is the fact that he never mentions how the movie was taken away from him, or makes any reference to Harlin’s effort whatsoever (which by this point had been released). That would have been fun to listen to!
*. The only disappointment Schrader lets on is with the hyenas. These are digital and they look terrible. They might have thought it was a bad idea in the first place, given that hyenas aren’t that trainable (unlike all the bad dogs in the Omen movies), and besides they’re cowardly animals individually. But instead we get CGI hyenas. And cows eating dead hyenas. A scene that Schrader thought was going to be really creepy but that he admits doesn’t work at all. It looks silly.
*. It’s a very bad movie even without the uniformly poor effects. I get that Schrader wanted to focus more on Merrin’s struggle with his faith, and that the demon (which I guess is the same Pazuzu who winds up in Georgetown) is just there to effect his return to the cloth. But this doesn’t work. Merrin here, played with granite restraint by Stellan Skarsgård, has a far less compelling struggle with his faith than Father Karras in the original movie, and that still managed to be an effective horror flick. Schrader wanted Merrin to be like John Wayne, even sending him off through a doorway in homage to the shot at the end of The Searchers, with a rosary as his six-gun, but how often did you ever think John Wayne was threatened with spiritual backsliding?
*. Part of the problem is the same as in The Exorcist, and indeed it’s a problem I have with a lot of movies like this. That is: given the existence of such a powerful, supernatural force (be it a demon or alien or whatever) why is it even bothering to do what it’s doing here? Hasn’t Pazuzu something better to do than test Merrin’s faith, especially given that he’s already lapsed? And let’s face it, in the final showdown Pazuzu doesn’t put up much of a fight. Basically Merrin just has to read a bit from what I take is the exorcism ritual and that’s it for Mr. Perfection, even if he can make the Northern Lights come out in Kenya. They’ve seen queer sights, but never as queer as this!
*. So a dead movie and a dead commentary make for a dull day indeed. At one point Schrader remarks that he’s less interested in action than interpersonal drama. “Just give me two angry actors in a kitchen and I’m happy,” he says. I would have taken that over this as well. I also was interested to hear that Mel Gibson was shooting The Passion of the Christ at Cinecittà at the same time as this movie (the exteriors here were shot in Morocco, but the studio stuff in Rome). Two productions that were going in very different directions.