The Last Exorcism
Director : Daniel Stamm
Screenplay : Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Patrick Fabian (Cotton Marcus), Ashley Bell (Nell Sweetzer), Iris Bahr (Iris Reisen), Louis Herthum (Louis Sweetzer), Caleb Landry Jones (Caleb Sweetzer), Tony Bentley (Pastor Manley), John Wright Jr. (John Marcus), Shanna Forrestall (Shanna Marcus), Justin Shafer (Justin Marcus), Carol Sutton (Shopkeeper), Victoria Patenaude (Motorist), John Wilmot (Spindly Man), Becky Fly (Becky Davis), Denise Lee (Nurse), Logan Craig Reid (Logan Winters)
It has now been more than a decade since The Blair Witch Project (1999) took the Sundance Film Festival and then summer audiences by storm, riding a wave of buzz generated primarily by the then novel concept of employing faux documentary techniques to tell a horror story, thus drawing viewers directly into the terror by conflating well-worn genre tropes with the aesthetics of familiar, accessible technology. The new moral of the horror story is that it could be you recording your own death. Since then, the technique has been applied to just about every horror subgenre imaginable-- the zombie film (Quarantine and Diary of the Dead), the ghost story (Paranormal Activity), and even the rampaging monster movie (Cloverfield)--with wildly disparate results.
The Last Exorcism follows in this trend by applying the pseudo-documentary approach to the demon possession movie, and the film both benefits and ultimately suffers because of it. On the plus side, staging the horrors of demon possession and the accompanying rituals of exorcism via a handheld digital camera wielded by a serious-minded documentary crew breathes a sense of new life into a subgenre that invariably collapses beneath unavoidable comparisons to The Exorcist (1973), quite possibly the most monumental film in the history of the horror genre. On the down side, the proliferation of similarly framed horror movies makes this one feel all the more derivative and overly familiar, thus reinforcing what I have always feared, which is that the effectiveness of The Blair Witch Project was really a one-shot success, a singular achievement whose repetition becomes decreasingly meaningful with each iteration.
This is not to say that The Last Exorcism has nothing going for it. Rather, screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have cooked up a clever story that mixes familiar elements in unconventional ways. At its heart the film is yet another variation on the old supernatural horror standby (often referred to as the standoff between white science and black magic) in which an avowed cynic/skeptic/nonbeliever is brought face to face with the supernatural and ultimately converts. In this case, the nonbeliever is Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a flamboyant preacher from Baton Rouge who was trained by his devout preacher father (John Wright Jr.) to lead from a very young age. Somewhere along the line he lost his faith, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to preach the Word, as any good charlatan knows that there’s good money to be made in fleecing the faithful. One of Cotton’s specialties is exorcism, which has he honed into a fine art of trickery and deception using everything from wired finger rings, to hidden speakers, to a crucifix that spurts smoke at just the right moment. (There is a bit of confusion here regarding Cotton’s loss of faith, as it is never entirely made entirely clear whether he has stopped believing in God altogether or just the practice of exorcisms.)
The film’s aesthetic/narrative conceit is that Cotton is disturbed by news of a teenager who was killed during a supposed exorcism and he wants to expose the rite as a sham. Thus, he allows a documentary crew consisting of producer Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) and an unseen cameraman to film him conducting a “last exorcism” that will raise the curtain on the charade. Selecting at random one of the many letters he receives requesting demon removal, Cotton heads to the remote farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a backwoods fundamentalist who believes that his16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Louis’s teenage son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) doesn’t seem to buy into this idea, and he actively tries to dissuade Cotton and the crew from performing the exorcism. Cotton, however, is determined to follow through on the sham, which he does with great aplomb, only to find that he may very well be faced with the real deal.
To reveal much more would ruin the film’s effectiveness, as it moves steadily from moments of great familiarity to surprise revelations that I doubt even the most hardened horror fans will see coming. In hindsight it all seems too familiar, but the way in which the narrative takes us from plot point to plot point and eventually brings us to a strangely ambiguous climax that simultaneously answers everything and nothing keeps it tense and involving during the initial viewing. The performances are all perfectly convincing: Veteran television actor Patrick Fabian creates a protagonist who is both admirable and pitiable, and (literally) flexible newcomer Ashley Bell vacillates powerfully between giddy childlike innocence and a demonic thousand-yard stare that can’t help but make you feel that her soul is in deep danger. Director Daniel Stamm, who confused and angered audiences a few years ago with A Necessary Death (2008), a faux documentary that purported to follow a young man planning his own suicide, understands the power of the direct gaze, and when Nell stares right through the lens at us, it is positively chilling.
Yet, it is hard not to feel that The Last Exorcism is a bit of a cheat, since it deploys its documentary aesthetics to draw us into a sense of realism, yet cheats in every way imaginable. In fact, the film’s cheats are so blatant--extradiegetic music to set the mood, editing rhythms that would be impossible without multiple camera setups, perfectly framed transition shots--that it begins to lose its documentary essence and starts to feel like another run-of-the-mill possession knock-off. Stamm clearly wants more than his chosen approach will allow, so he’s more than willing to compromise it at any given moment to achieve a desired effect (while it makes aesthetic sense, the sequence in which an apparently possessed Nell takes hold of the camera to give us a first-person view of her nocturnal activities is a real bust; no one wants a possessed I-cam). The brilliance of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity was that they played fair with their pseudo-documentary conceit, which we may not register consciously, but subconsciously heightens the perceived sense of realism to nearly unbearable levels. Had The Last Exorcism played by similar rules, it could very well have been one of the most frightening films in recent memory.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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