Entertainment Weekly - April 22, 2005

EXORCISE PLAN

EW takes a look at the new horror flick ''Dominion'' -- We ask how and why the ''Exorcist'' prequel came to be

For many horror fans, william Friedkin's The Exorcist is the holy grail something you just don't mess with. And yet so many have. Since that film's 1973 debut, there have been two sequels and a prequel no, make that two prequels: last year's Renny Harlin-directed Exorcist: The Beginning, and another version of the same movie that never made it to cineplexes. Why? Because production company Morgan Creek fired director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) after the film was shot, shelved it, and hired Harlin to start from scratch. Oh, the horror! ''I've been living in a world of righteous paranoia [ever since],'' says Schrader. But this month came good news: His flick gets a hard-won limited release on May 20.

The resurrection of his film is bizarre and unprecedented. Schrader's $40 million take on demon possession got the shaft because Morgan Creek chief Jim Robinson deemed it too short on gore for horror fans, one of Hollywood's most reliable audiences (witness The Amityville Horror's $23.5 million debut). ''Paul's version was very cerebral,'' Robinson tells EW. ''I had concerns as to how well it would play to the mass audience.'' Not that Harlin's (Cutthroat Island) $44 million attempt fixed that problem. Telling roughly the same story (a conflicted priest encounters the devil in 1940s Africa) and even featuring some of the same cast (Stellan Skarsgard plays the priest in both), The Beginning was skewered by critics and grossed just $41 million.

Post-firing, he finished it on his own, thanks to friends like composer Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks), who worked for ''next to nothing.'' Tentatively titled Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, it found a place at March's Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film, where audiences and critics responded positively. ''I knew that once it was projected, it would 'exist,''' says Schrader. After the reviews, Warner Bros., Morgan Creek's distributor for both films, ''started to see the thinking behind a limited release, and the historical uniqueness of the situation.'' (No studio has ever released different versions of the same movie, much less with the same star, a year apart.) Adds Schrader: ''It'll be a talking point in film schools forever.''

So what possessed Morgan Creek to release Dominion now? According to Robinson, he'd always intended to release Schrader's picture (which is news to Schrader), and as a result shelled out $84 million on virtually identical films. ''I spent a lot of money on that movie. Why would I want to throw it all out the window? We got Renny's out, and waited for the right release slot for Paul's.'' Which is...the same weekend as Revenge of the Sith? ''Not everyone can go see Star Wars,'' he reasons.

For Schrader, whatever the box office, it's a personal triumph. ''It's like the '60s!'' he crows. ''Fighting the man!'' On the other hand, he laughs, ''After spending years raising expectations, now I have to start lowering them.''