September 7th, 2008

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005) **

Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) is haunted by the atrocities of WWII (he had to make one of those Sophie’s Choice type deals), so he moves to Africa to excavate some old ruins.  There, he finds a church buried in the middle of the desert and awakens an evil spirit that possesses the village idiot.  Merrin must regain his faith in order to go mano y demono with the bald-headed, deep-voiced weirdo.   

 

The backstory on this flick is a Hell of a lot more interesting than the actual film itself.  Production company Morgan Creek hired Paul (Cat People) Schrader to direct this prequel to the 1973 Pea Soup Puke-A-Thon, The Exorcist.  After they didn’t dig the final product, they decided to hire Renny (Cliffhanger) Harlin to come in and reshoot the movie.  Not just reshoot a few scenes, but the ENTIRE movie.  Warner Brothers liked Harlin’s version and they released it as Exorcist:  The Beginning, to bad reviews and middling box office returns.  Looking to recoup some quick cash, they decided to release Schrader’s version the next year. 

 

You know, Hollywood studios have a reputation for stifling moviemaker’s artistic aspirations in favor of visionless eye candy that will sell a bunch of movie tickets, but this is the first time ever that I have to agree with the studio here.  Dominion just isn’t very good.  It’s slow and talky and while it does give you an exorcism near the end of the flick, the rest of the movie is largely absent of any scares, suspense or dread. 

 

Comparisons to The Beginning are unavoidable.  While Harlin’s flick will never be mentioned in the same breath as William Friedkin’s original, it at least it had its fair share of queasy moments and delivered the goods when it came time to start slinging the holy water around.  Harlin knew what he was doing when he filmed those scenes of bloodthirsty hyenas chowing down on little tykes.  Schrader’s idea of scary?  Having troubled British soldiers blow their brains out.  It’s just not the same.  And say what you will about Renny’s movie; at least it didn’t have a bunch of arty dream sequences in it. 

 

The lack of faith the studio had in this project is evident because of the criminally low budget Schrader had for CGI effects.  They are all extremely shoddy looking (especially the hyenas) and make the effects in The Beginning look like freakin’ Star Wars by comparison.  Also, Schrader spends way too much time on the weak subplot about the African natives’ potential uprising that frankly goes nowhere. 

 

Schrader’s version isn’t a complete washout though.  I liked some things that he did, like having the possessed kid being a complete inverse of Regan from the original.  (Regan was a healthy girl who got progressively worse from the possession while the kid in this flick is a crippled boy who grows stronger from having the demon inside him.)  Schrader imbued the flick with a lot of theological dilemmas and moralistic angst, which is somewhat refreshing, but unfortunately he neglected to make any of it very memorable or scary. 

 

I guess it all depends on the kind of film you’re looking for.  If you want a popcorn friendly possession flick with some decent gore, then check out Exorcist:  The Beginning.  If you want a somber, slow moving meditation on the nature of evil and its influence on man, see Dominion.  But if you want to watch a CLASSIC, see the original Exorcist instead.
 

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) ****

Ah yes, Smokey and the Bandit.  One of the greatest films ever made.  One of those films that whenever it’s on TV, you just HAVE to watch it until the very end when Burt Reynolds puts the pedal to the metal and delivers four hundred cases of Coors to Big Enos.  This movie has everything you could possibly want.  Comedy, drama, exciting chase scenes, terrific stunts and some of the greatest performances you’ll ever see. 

 

The plot has The Bandit (Reynolds) and Snowman (the late, great Jerry Reed) taking a bet to transport a whole lot of beer across state lines in a ridiculously small amount of time.  Snowman hauls the beer in his 18 wheel rig while Bandit runs “blocker” in his badass black Trans Am.  Along the way, they pick up Frog (Sally Field) who happens to be running away from the persistent Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) and his dim-witted son Junior (Mike Henry), and end up being chased by every “County Mountie” in the state. 

 

I have an unabashed love for this movie.  When I was a kid, I used to spend summers with my aunt who fed me a steady diet of Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris and Burt Reynolds movies.  Smokey and the Bandit was one of the earliest Burt films I was weaned on.  It’s far and away Burt’s best from his Golden Era and features some of the best acting he ever did.  Equally great is Reed as Snowman.  While Bandit is the flashier of the duo, Snowman is the soul and the scene where he gets revenge on a bunch of bikers who insulted his dog is a classic.  Reed also co-wrote and sings the theme song, “East Bound and Down”, which is not only one of the greatest country songs ever written, but one of the greatest SONGS ever written; period. 

 

As awesome as both Reynolds and Reed are, the movie really belongs to Gleason.  There was a reason why Orson Welles called him “The Great One”.  Damn, I can’t think of a single time he’s on screen in which he doesn’t say or do something that makes you laugh out loud.  Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello all had their great films, but none of them ever batted .1000, getting a laugh in every single scene they were in.  Gleason does it here and as a result, gets all of the movie’s best lines like “Bank robbing is baby shit compared to what this dude’s doing!”, “I’m going to barbecue your ass in molasses!”, “No one makes me look like a possum’s pecker!”, and “You pile of monkey nuts!”   But my favorite is when he scolds Junior and tells him:  “There is no way that you come from my loins.  When I get home, the first thing I’m going to punch your mama in the mouth!”

 

Two sequels followed but neither came close to matching this classic.  Director Hal Needham also teamed up with Reynolds for the Cannonball Run movies.