Set in the years following the Second World War, DOMINION tells the tale of Father Merrin, a wayward priest who has turned to archaeology after his faith is shaken by the war. When Merrin uncovers an ancient church buried beneath the sands of East Africa, he will share his first encounter with the devil, who has possessed the body of a poor crippled boy. Despite being shelved immediately after production, Paul Schrader's prequel to THE EXORCIST was simply too good to be released to the general public. Instead of spinning heads and spewing soup, DOMINION takes a much more cerebral approach to evil. Interestingly, Schrader creates a complete reversal from the original film: the demon possesses the body of a sickly boy, it strengthens and repairs him rather than destroying him, and it uses its wicked tongue to rattle the nerve rather than shock the senses. Pazuzu taunts Merrin and attempts to destroy him both mentally and spiritually. Like the fallen angel Lucifer, it appears as the perfect being, an intellectual tempter with a sculpted body and androgynous beauty unlike the foul monster that Merrin would encounter years late. Pazuzu's evil spreads like a plague in the small African village, and turns man against man while the fallen priest works to regain his robes. The corruptive power of evil is felt in full force here, although Schrader takes slow but decisive steps to reach his final goal.
While DOMINION has often been criticized for its unfinished effects, it is rarely hailed for its superior setting. The ancient Byzantine tomb is finely decorated, and serves as an ominous stage for the spiritual warfare. Given the studio's complete lack of faith and resources, the garish computerization must be overlooked in place of the stronger story elements. Stellan Skarsgård is very good as the younger counterpart to Max von Sydow's character, with an introspective approach to the character that is reserved without being underplayed. He gives us cracks in his otherwise stern performance that humanize him and allow us to empathize with his internal struggle. Like Skarsgård, Schrader pulls back as well, refusing to rely on simple shocks in this psychological thriller. His unwillingness to compromise in creating a "studio" picture may have hurt the returns, but in the end, he delivers a much stronger film.
Renny Harlin would be brought on to re-write and re-shoot the entire picture after Morgan Creek decided to pull the project for its lack of marketability, but between the two versions, DOMINION is the preferrable prequel to THE EXORCIST.