To most genre fans, The Exorcist is considered one of the most celebrated horror movies ever made. Very few can dispute its power, impact and influence. If there’s anything to argue about William Friedkin’s classic film, its which version you prefer to watch as there’s the original 1973 theatrical cut, as well as the 2000 “Version You’ve Never Seen” cut, which boasts several deleted scenes and newly added FX. But if any film sports a unique history in the annals of bizarre movie trivia, it’d be the Exorcist prequel, which also has two completely different versions, both from completely different and distinctive directors.
The character of Father Merrin, the elder priest brought in to perform the exorcism on Reagan (Linda Blair) in the first movie was one of those genre defining performances by Max Von Sydow. In fact, Dick Miller’s incredible FX work to make the actor appear far older than he really was was so convincing that it cost the actor several jobs after because most Hollywood assumed he was “too old”. It’s a true testament both to Smith and Sydow for both of their work. But one of the most intriguing aspects of The Exorcist is when Father Merrin hints at the previous exorcism he’d performed in his younger years. John Boorman made a radical sequel with Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977. And then later William Peter Blatty, author of the original Exorcist novel took a stab at directing The Exorcist III: Legion starring George C. Scott and adapting it from his other novel Legion. The only place left to go after that sequel was back to the beginning; that original exorcism that Father Merrin mentioned in the first film.
The prequel project began sometime in 2002 and the first filmmaker attached was John Frankenheimer, the director of the original Manchurian Candidate and Grand Pix. He was forced to drop out of the project due to his declining health and unfortunately passed away a month later. After that, Morgan Creek Entertainment turned to Paul Schrader, the writer of such seminal Martin Scorsese films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the director of Hardcore and American Gigalo. Liam Neeson was originally cast in the role of young Father Merrin, but dropped out fairly early on and was later replaced by Stellan Skarsgard.
Schrader was aiming to deliver a psychological thriller in line with the tone of the original and felt he succeeded in such when he delivered his first cut to Morgan Creek Entertainment. The studio disagreed and original writer Caleb Carr spoke out saying, “The problem with Paul's cut is that it does not deliver the psychological fear we were looking for.” So then the studio brought in Renny Harlin as a replacement who not only ended up re-shooting up to 90 percent of the film, but ended up re-casting 3 major roles, most notably Father Francis originally played by Gabriel Mann and then played by James D-Arcy (Anthony Perkins in the recently released Hitchcock) in the Harlin version. Alexi Hawley was brought on to do rewrites and retool the feature to a include a character named Sarah played by Izabella Scorupco, whom by the end of the film would transform into a Reagan-esque demon for the final exorcism, despite the original backstory citing Merrin performing the infamous exorcism on a possessed little boy.
Despite the producers claim that they didn’t feel Schrader’s cut was “psychological” enough, Harlin’s brought out more of the elements they were really looking for; gore and scares in line with where traditional horror movies were at that point in time. Some of it, like the shocking imagery from the opening sequence with hundreds of soldiers hung upside down on crucifixes is striking, while other sequences like the wolves attacking a young villager fall flat due to their over reliance of CGI, no doubt because of Harlin’s overuse of the technique on his previous movie Deep Blue Sea. The Renny Harlin version of the film opened in theaters in August of 2004 under the title of The Exorcist: The Beginning and was both a critical and financial disappointment. Original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty was quoted as saying that watching the film was his “most humiliating professional experience.”
After a year of rumors circulating that there was an alternate cut of the movie by Schrader, the filmmaker got to premiere his version at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film on March 18, 2005 much to the delight of Exorcist fans. Reaction was positive enough, that it convinced the studio to give his version which they titled “Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist” a limited theatrical run, as well as a DVD release shortly thereafter. Finally, people were able to see the original cut of the film and while critically it didn’t fare much better than Harlin’s movie, Blatty called it a “handsome, classy, elegant piece of work.” Famed film critic Roger Ebert preferred the Schrader cut referring to it as “risky and daring in that is takes evil seriously.”
Schrader joked about his experiences with Morgan Creek Entertainment to the Guardian that it was “a simple case of buyer's remorse. Somebody goes out and buys a Lexus and they come home and say: 'You know what? I should really have bought a Hummer.' So they go out and buy a Hummer. And then they've got a Lexus and a Hummer.” But as a result, we now have two completely different versions of the same movie. And while the Schrader cut may have some ringing endorsements, a lot of Exorcist fans find it to be somewhat slow & boring, the opposite of Harlin’s more modern-horror centric attempt at The Exorcist.