In the history of cinema, there have only been a few good sequels — The Godfather, Part II immediately comes to mind, along with a couple of the Batman installments. So it is no surprise that rather than representing excellence in filmmaking, the term “sequel” generally calls to mind a cheap shot at cashing in. But prequel? That is a concept that could only have sprung from the diabolical mind of a studio marketing executive. It is especially appropriate, then, that Tim Silano’s enormously enjoyable documentary Schrader’s Exorcism concerns the hellish aftermath of the attempt to “prequelize” perhaps the greatest horror film of all time, The Exorcist.
In 2002, director Paul Schrader was under contract to make Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. He took his world-class cast and crew (including Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC) to Morocco, where he put his unique vision on film, creating a complex and disturbing interpretation of Father Merrin’s epic first battle with the devil.
But darker forces were lurking on the home front. Even though Morgan Creek executives had read the script and were well aware of what Schrader was doing, upon seeing the finished work, they decided they had made the wrong movie. In an inexplicable and unprecedented move, they chose to throw away Schrader’s $40 million picture and commission a completely new one, to be directed by Renny Harlin. Leading up to this perverse turn, there were no warnings to Schrader — no arguments, no notes from the studio overseers. This harsh swing of the anonymous corporate axe had a devastating effect. "I knew there would be blood on the floor," Schrader says at one point in Silano’s film. "I just didn’t know it would be mine."
Flash-forward to 2005, when Silano (an established film editor) was called in by Morgan Creek to re-cut Schrader’s original version for DVD release. Sensitive to the politics of the situation yet also respectful of Schrader’s artistry, Silano took it upon himself to contact the director and solicit his participation in the effort. Schrader was more than willing to embrace the task, and a solid bond developed between the two men; that ultimately led to Schrader’s Exorcism, in which the director’s side of the ordeal is chronicled in a brisk and entertaining fashion.
Interviews with Schrader and key cast and crewmembers are interwoven with behind-the-scenes footage and a visit to the 2005 Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film, where Dominion was shown to the public for the first time. Though Silano uses an appreciably light touch throughout, what comes across most vividly is the depth of passion expressed by all who were involved in the documentary’s creation.
Schrader’s Exorcism lays out the facts with an often humorous lilt, but, much more important, it illustrates the real human cost when disasters occur. Executives at every level of the business would do well to take note.
In a certain way, Schrader can be seen to have had the last laugh. Dominion was well received by the festival audience and was generally recognized as good by critics during its extremely limited — and thoroughly unsupported — release in 2005. Looking back, Schrader has a wry take on the experience. Recounting a conversation with Robert Altman, he seconded the esteemed director’s terse summation of what went wrong: "Every time they’ve screwed you every way they can, they come up with a new way."
Schrader’s Exorcism is, indeed, a cautionary tale, but it is also a genuine treat for anyone interested in learning more about one of the oddest footnotes to film history. An added point of interest for AC readers is an extensive B-side interview with Caleb Deschanel, ASC, who was tasked with overseeing the final lab work in Storaro’s place. Deschanel’s observations on the industry at large are not just stinging and on the mark, they also are refreshing.