When Renny Harlin’s gruesome, effects-laden prequel to William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist” was released last year under the title “The Exorcist: The Beginning,” it was greeted with critical disdain and public indifference. The displeasure at the excesses of the director’s gore-fest was accentuated by the knowledge that his picture was in effect a replacement for a film made from an earlier version of the script by Paul Schrader which had been shelved by the producers, supposedly on the grounds that it was insufficiently scary. At the time people urged that Schrader’s take on the material should be liberated from the vaults, convinced that it would be appreciably better, perhaps–Schrader having produced a string of intriguing if uneven films in the past–a hidden masterpiece. Now the Morgan Creek production company has sent the earlier movie, retitled “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist,” into distribution, probably hoping against hope that in theatres and the inevitable DVD incarnation it might bring their considerable investment into the black.

That seems most unlikely, given that Schrader’s film, while an improvement over Harlin’s, is unlikely to have broad appeal. It covers pretty much the same territory as “The Beginning,” starting with the incident in war-torn Holland that causes Father Lankester Merrin’s crisis of faith and then moving to British East Africa, where the now-defrocked priest is heading an archeological dig at a buried Byzantine church, the uncovering of which releases the demon that Merrin and the conscientious but naive missionary Father Francis will have to contend with. And still involved in the plot are the officious Major Granville, who tries to deal with increasing tension from the locals and rationalize the evil that begins to permeate the region, and Rachel, the local doctor who’s a survivor of the German concentration camps. But there are also differences between the original script by William Wisher and Caleb Carr and the revised version by Alexi Hawley that Harlin used. The whole introductory Egyptian episode in Harlin’s film, for instance, is absent here. There are also changes in casting. Though Stellan Skarsgard is Merrin and Julian Wadham Granville in both, James D’Arcy replaced the more ascetic Gabriel Mann as Francis and Izabella Scorupco took over for a more fragile Clara Bellar in Harlin’s reshoot.

The most notable change, however, involves the possession itself, the focus of which in Harlin’s version is kept a slippery secret until the end, allowing for some narrative sleight-of-hand and surprise; here the identity of the possessed individual is made clear early. The transformation effected by the demon is given a twist here, too, with the victim becoming more physically imposing as the devilish influence increases rather than uglier and more deformed. And while Harlin staged the final confrontation between Merrin and the demon as an effects blow-out, in this telling it’s more a learned colloquy between the demon–who looks rather like a levitating Indian swami, bald and wearing a loincloth–and the priest, with the former trying to take advantage of the man’s human weakness to seduce him to the dark side, as it were.

And that’s a good example of what’s really characteristic of “Dominion.” It’s more like a studiously creepy, almost metaphysical Schrader film from the 1970s than Harlin’s modern, shock-filled horror movie; while “The Beginning” was showy and slam-bang, this alternative is severe, contemplative and languid. Basically it’s a slow, gloomy rumination on what’s always been a major concern of the director–guilt, with strong religious overtones. (Pauline Kael was right on the money when she referred to him as a heavyweight moralist and talked of his puritan inclinations.) As such it’s completely proper that it should end with what amounts to an ethical debate about human freedom and the possibility of happiness, rather than CGI fireworks. Indeed, on the rare occasions when Schrader does resort to effects of the currently popular sort, he seems embarrassed by their vulgarity, using them in a way that engenders deep distaste rather than the ghoulish pleasure horror devices are ordinarily designed to elicit. A shot of a maggot-covered newborn, and another of a cow feeding on a dead hyena, are typical. And elsewhere, the effects are so crude as to be almost laughable, as though they were merely an afterthought. (Those hyenas, for instance, are some of the most inept computer-generated creations of all time.) It’s clear that Schrader doesn’t care much about the very stuff in which Harlin indulged so gleefully–he didn’t emphasize such things in his version of “Cat People” back in 1982, either, preferring to employ the supernatural elements as metaphors in his commentary on the human condition; and so here he wants to tell a real, if fantastical story, more interested in crafting iconographic tableaux like an execution scene modeled after the martyrdom of St. Sebastian than in generating cheap shudders. (Given the sophisticated inclination, it’s unfortunate that the picture isn’t equally concerned with other religious details; one would expect that when Father Francis intones the baptismal formula, for example, that he’d get the Latin right, but he doesn’t.)

But while one can admire the fact that it represents a real directorial vision–this is a personal film rather than a hack cookie-cutter studio flick, which is what Harlin’s hard-driven piece was–it has to be said that “Dominion” emerges as a limp, tepid experience. It’s not surprising that it doesn’t work as a horror flick, but Schrader’s muted approach and deliberate tempos, accentuated by Tim Silano’s easygoing editing, sap it of all energy and intensity. The effect on the actors is substantial. Skarsgard certainly projects Merrin’s angst-ridden persona, but that hardly makes for vibrant viewing, and Mann and Bellar are almost as restrained and tentative as he is. Wadham exhibits greater pizzazz in his turn, and Ralph Brown even more as Wadham’s racist sergeant-major (a figure pretty much jettisoned by Harlin), but those are peripheral characters; and though Billy Crawford brings an unusual look to a native named Cheche, he’s also directed to emphasize mood rather than action.

In sum, while Schrader’s desire to fashion a film that’s more a consideration of morality than an exercise in shlock effects may be admirable, the result is dramatically flat without being as intellectually stimulating as the director obviously hoped. The austere, cerebral “Dominion” is a serious and ambitious alternative to Harlin’s movie, but it’s only marginally superior to it.