US (dir. Daniel Stamm)
Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Jamie Alyson Caudle, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Tony Bentley
Synopsis: When he arrives on the rural Louisiana farm of Louis Sweetzer, the Reverend Cotton Marcus expects to perform just another routine “exorcism” on a disturbed religious fanatic. An earnest fundamentalist, Sweetzer has contacted the charismatic preacher as a last resort, certain his teenage daughter Nell is possessed by a demon who must be exorcised before their terrifying ordeal ends in unimaginable tragedy. Buckling under the weight of his conscience after years of parting desperate believers with their money, Cotton and his crew plan to film a confessionary documentary of this, his last exorcism. But upon arriving at the already blood drenched family farm, it is soon clear that nothing could have prepared him for the true evil he encounters there. Now, too late to turn back, Reverend Marcus’ own beliefs are shaken to the core when he and his crew must find a way to save Nell, and themselves, before it is too late.
Review: Finally, a movie that is appealing to both Christian enthusiasts and satanists! Who said it wasn’t possible!?!?
Before I go any further, let me just say that in the interest of giving “The Last Exorcism” a fair chance, I won’t delve too heavily into spoilers because revealing them would ultimately ruin one’s experience of the film. “The Last Exorcism” is a PG-13, mockumentary-style exorcism film that actually spends more time exploring the concept of the rift between religious extremism and secular attitudes towards healing the mind and body then it does scaring the shit out of anyone. It is essentially a science versus religion debate akin to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. Sure, “The Last Exorcism” boasts some pretty awesome (non-CGI) effects (I have to admit I was pretty impressed to discover that the exorcism effects were purely physical contortions and not computer generated in any way), but it does not successfully provide enough full-blown horror to satisfy someone looking for a balls-out, head-spinning, vomit-laden exorcism movie along the lines of 1973’s “The Exorcist”. There’s a significant, and I’ll have to admit, pretty fucking unexpected, twist that happens with about 5-10 minutes left in the film, but it proves to be (unfortunately) too little too late.
As I mentioned with “The Gravedancers”, it’s hard to watch a great film get progressively worse as it goes on. This is the case with “The Last Exorcism”; it’s a great film that becomes progressively lackluster. It has a fantastically engaging opening act, a trite, and very-nearly yawn inducing, middle section, and a twist ending that as I’ve mentioned is in fact quite surprising, but not profoundly disturbing enough to really do it for me.
One of the debates that somehow seems to pop up in 21st century exorcism films is whether or not the subject(s) being exorcised is/are actually mentally ill or truly suffering from a possession of some sort. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is the one that will probably come to mind when you think of films that dwell on this debate. “The Last Exorcism” also brings this debate to the forefront, and I’m happy to report that it succeeds where “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” did not: in convincing you the subject (a young girl, Nell) is actually mentally/psychologically disturbed and then flipping the tables as quickly as possible to make you think otherwise. Whereas “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” dragged on and on with no real substantial conclusion, “The Last Exorcism” is smart enough to give some sort of closure, albeit not the kind the audience will be expecting.
I mentioned that the opening act of the film is quite engaging, and I stand by this despite the fact that the rest of the movie is not. Our introduction to Cotton, the exorcist who has vowed to take on one last exorcism as part of a documentary, is pretty much the highlight of the film. Cotton is a smooth-talking sheister who makes his living by performing fake exorcisms that are literally well choreographed magic shows. The first part of the film is devoted to showing us his true character and giving us someone to feel for, besides the soon to be introduced exorcism subject, Nell. As much as he is a con-man, Cotton is a performance artist. His phony exorcisms, fake though they may be, have a tendency to convince people that they or their loved ones are exorcised of their demons. He explains his rationale for confessing his exorcism scam is to expose exorcisms for what they truly are, and to avoid the unnecessary torture or death of exorcism subjects. He’s a scam artist with a noble cause and justification for what he is doing, so he’s an underdog and a hero and even a bit of a villain all in one character. It’s very easy to grow to like him, or at least see things from his perspective. Technically speaking, the first act is also the most “mockumentary-ish” of the film as a whole.
As Cotton goes on to meet the subject of his final exorcism, the film crew tags along. Now, while I’m not opposed to mockumentary/found footage films (i.e. “The Fourth Kind”, “Paranormal Activity”) I don’t think “The Last Exorcism” was the kind of film that should have been made with the effect of the audience knowing there is a cameraman capturing the events of the film. With a solid enough script like that of “The Last Exorcism” and with a great story at the center of it all, presenting the film as a mockumentary/found footage hybrid isn’t necessary and doesn’t really even enhance the viewing experience. If anything, I found that it actually detracted from the film. For one, the mockumentary cameraman spends far too much time panning around to other people’s faces during parts of the film where crazy-ass exorcism shit is going down. Sorry, but if there’s a girl fucking twisting her spine and audibly snapping her own bones to pieces, are we really supposed to believe the cameraman thought it would be an opportune moment to capture everyone in the vicinity’s (and I mean everyone’s) reaction to it?! Come on… no one sees a 16 year-old girl do this to her body and then thinks to themselves: Hmmm, maybe now would be a good time to pan the camera over to the right to catch her father’s reaction…
It becomes painfully obvious that the use of the mockumentary/found footage medium is just in response to the incredible success of “Paranormal Activity”, the renewed interest in the cinematic style of the shaky hand-held camera and the desire to present a more realistic situation that results from a film’s use of purportedly “found” footage. Yet despite all this, the movie doesn’t even bother to tack on information either at the beginning or the end that would suggest the events were actually captured on film by so-and-so during the summer of 2008 (or whenever) and that so-and-so was never seen again or his/her body was found by police etc. etc. This movie doesn’t even have a “based on true events” or “this footage was found by state police” spiel, so why even bother with the found footage angle anyways, especially when the movie starts off as a solid (and believable) mockumentary?
There are also way too many laughs to be had. Most of them are directed towards Cotton’s introduction and parts where he illustrates how easily his exorcisms are staged, but others occur at times when you wouldn’t really think would be appropriate for comedy, like when the cameraman finds drawings (made by the supposedly possessed girl, Nell) where he has been decapitated. Though this might not sound funny, believe me, the drawings are a hoot (oh, how I wish I had a screen cap for them right now). However, keep in mind, it’s pretty hard to be scared shitless when you’re laughing your ass off, so it’s unfortunate that the movie has as much humour as it does. Like the found footage approach, this ultimately detracts from the film.
Criticisms aside, the script is pretty solid and it takes the subject matter to a whole new level in ways other horror movies in this genre have failed to do. There is also enough bloody carnage and mayhem to push the boundaries of its PG-13ishness, so one really can’t complain this is a bloodless, non-violent exorcism flick for tweens. In actuality, this is one of the most violent exorcism films I’ve seen in awhile, so bonus points for “The Last Exorcism”. I was somewhat saddened to see there was very little Eli Roth influence on this film (he acted as producer). At the Toronto After Dark film fest Q&A he mentioned that he had had some influence over the final scene/twist but even that didn’t seem Roth-ish enough for me. Granted, he hasn’t elevated to the status of an auteur director as of yet, but I tend to be able to distinguish the trademarks of his films, subtle though they may be. It’s a shame his influence wasn’t more predominant here. Otherwise, the film is a decent, albeit flawed, entry into the exorcism sub-genre and is definitely worth checking out even if exorcism movies aren’t your thing.