The Last Exorcism
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Screenplay by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus
Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer
Iris Bahr as Iris Reisen
Louis Herthum as Louis Sweetzer
Caleb Landry Jones as Caleb Sweetzer
Tony Bentley as Pastor Manley
John Wright Jr. as John Marcus
Shanna Forrestall as Shanna Marcus
Justin Shafer as Justin Marcus
Possession is Nine Tenths of a Good Movie
There is a song by the Legendary Shack Shakers which opens thus:
“Well the devil’s in the details
And your reverend’s into retail”
This is as fitting an introduction as any to Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism, a film with plenty of good scares, and far more dramatic meat than its advertising campaign suggests. The trailer seems to have been aimed directly at the same crowd who flocked to Paranormal Activity, only to have their brain cells murdered by two dumpy kids trembling in fear of some purportedly spooky camera tricks. Duped once again into expecting the scariest movie ever, audiences instead got a Blair Witch knockoff masquerading as a much more clever film. Which it isn’t.
Fortunately, The Last Exorcism rises above this admittedly low bar. The story is fairly interesting and explores themes of real weight. Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is preacher to a small, devout congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Right away, we learn that his actual faith, if any, is a minor component of his calling.
He is a performer, even going so far as to use card tricks and sleight of hand to illustrate his sermons. He himself admits that he’s in it for the money, and consoles his conscience by emphasizing the peace of mind that his work instills in faithful flock, whether or not he believes what he is telling them. What a humanitarian.
In addition to his job in the pulpit, Marcus has made a bundle on the side as an exorcist. Here he crosses the line from dubious messenger of the spirit to outright charlatan… as far as he, a non-believer in actual demons, knows. In time, however, the reports of people harmed or killed in more sincere exorcisms have disillusioned even him, and he resolves to perform one last rite in order to expose the whole enterprise as a sham.
To this end, he brings a documentary crew along to an isolated farm, where a troubled father is convinced his gentle but sorely repressed young daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed of a demon and mutilating his cattle. Marcus walks us through his exorcism con game, unbeknownst to the father and daughter, who swallow the act all the way. His job done, he counts his absurdly large fee and hits the road. Everyone is happy.
Until Nell shows up, much worse off than before. Forced to dig deeper into the problem, Marcus discovers that Nell’s personal problems may require professional care. She begins exhibiting undeniable signs of either true demonic possession or deep, deep psychosis, and whatever the answer, Marcus resolves not to walk away until the answers come to light.
It is a compelling idea, and yet another interesting take on the themes put forward most famously by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, forever the Daddy of all demon flicks. The sticky subject of exorcism has felt a modest revival in popularity, particularly with two recent films built loosely on true events – the stylish and abrasive The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and the beautiful, heartbreaking Requiem (2006). Like these films, The Last Exorcism thoughtfully explores the conflict between the tenets of blind faith and the conventional wisdom of modern medicine, as well as the surprising reluctance of religious authorities to accept the possibility of the supernatural until absolutely forced.
The main thing holding this movie back is the documentary framing. The “mockumentary” format doesn’t work well at all for horror movies, no matter how many people insist on trying it. After about twenty minutes, the unsteady focus and shaky camera become tiresome, and there are invariably nine or ten or fifteen moments in such a film in which nobody would possibly be holding a running camera and pointing it in a helpful direction.
In making a film of this kind, the choice to limit oneself to the perspective of a single camera requires way too much cheating. I don’t care how much school credit you’re getting for this documentary… put the camera down, and either help your friends or run for your life! Also present is the almost-inevitable scene in which the possessed party picks up the camera for a while, simply because there’s no other way to show things from her perspective. It’s a spooky scene but it feels really cheap. Also, given the assumption that this is raw footage, who inserted a creepy musical score at the really tense moments?
For most of its brief running time, The Last Exorcism explores the ambiguity of the whole exorcism question pretty deftly. It piles on a few plot twists that keep audience and characters guessing right up to the end. But as with most movies of this kind, it seems to paint itself into a corner. The final twist is too grandiose, and the potential impact of the film buckles a bit under its weight. It might be the best choice to sucker punch the audience at the end of a film like this, but it’s too incongruous with the preceding events to ring true. It’s one of those “because I say so” moments that we are simply forced to accept, not necessarily because it connects to anything leading up to it.
The tension in this film has little continuity, because we keep taking time out to remind ourselves that it’s a documentary. However, once the film reaches a certain pitch, even the director begins to play fast and loose with his own documentary rules. This is probably a wise choice, but if you know that playing strictly by those rules will hold you back, why bother to frame it as a documentary at all?
Since the mockumentary has been around far too long to be innovative, nowadays it seems like a lazy way to force perspective and validate lots of on-the-nose exposition. When properly applied, the format can be a wonderful tool of satire, particularly to expose the various quirks and general absurdity of modern entertainment – consider the goofy brilliance of This Is Spinal Tap, or the vulgar acuity of Series 7: The Contenders. To date, however, this experiment has added little, if anything, to the horror genre.
No complaints about the performances, which are normally problematic in a film like this. Actors playing characters are interesting. Actors trying hard to act like real people are boring and hard to take seriously. These actors do an above-average job of straddling the fine line in between.
The Last Exorcism is a suitable popcorn picture, and there’s much more to it than you might expect. But the forced documentary construct hobbles its full potential. The really scary bits, which include some pretty over-the-top chaos, would play a great deal better in a properly staged and shot movie. As a straight horror drama with a free-roaming perspective, The Last Exorcism would be much more powerful.