Monday, October 31, 2011

The Last Exorcism

I saw my very first exorcism movie last year, and I made sure it was a classic.  I went in to The Exorcist with high expectations, but was a little disappointed.  Sure, it was a quality film, but it just didn't scare me.  When I saw the previews for The Last Exorcism, on the other hand, I was a little creeped out.  While the two films are completely unrelated apart from the subject matter, I have to admit that I was hoping to get the scares I wanted from The Exorcist in The Last Exorcism.

The Last Exorcism begins with a small film crew following Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) around for a documentary.  Marcus, the son of a Reverend, has been preaching the Gospel since childhood and making a living spreading the word of God.  He has had a crisis of faith, though.  A few years ago, his son fell very ill; while he eventually survived, Marcus found himself thanking the doctors instead of God.  Since then, he has continued to preach, but it has just been a way to support his family.  Increasingly, he finds himself mocking his own theatrics and becoming more cynical in his approach to the church.  Marcus came across a newspaper article about a child being accidentally killed during an exorcism.  Marcus, himself, had been performing exorcisms since the age of ten, but this death --- which came at the hands of well-meaning people --- hit home for him.  As the consummate showman, Marcus knows what goes into a good exorcism (read: smoke and mirrors), and he has decided to bring this film crew along on an exorcism, to show the world that it is just a bunch of crap.
Smug, cynical bastard

Marcus selects his next case at random.  He tells the camera some of the typical "signs" of exorcisms, sees them in the next letter he reads, and decides to respond to the pleas of the Sweetzer family.  The daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell) is allegedly possessed by a demon.  Reverend Marcus investigates and finds a sweet and probably overly-innocent girl in Nell, a disturbed brother in Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), and a close-minded fundamentalist in their father, Louis (Louis Herthum).  Maybe Nell has a bad case of guilt, or maybe her father or brother have been doing bad things to her.  Possession?  That seems rather unlikely.  Then again, this is a movie...
Never ask a soulless ginger for directions; they will send you to Hell

The acting in The Last Exorcism is fine, but it is overshadowed by the film style.  This is another one of those hand-held faux documentaries, along the same lines as The Blair Witch Project.  There is an awful lot less running in this, so you shouldn't get the same sense of disorientation while watching The Last Exorcism, but it is still a side-effect of the cinematography style.  Personally, I am okay with this style, as long as it makes sense within the story.  Here, it is the sole camera of a documentary crew, so it works.  It does have drawbacks, because it's hard to tell what the hell is going on whenever you actually want to know what's going on, but that's part of the charm of these faux documentaries, I guess.  Did director Daniel Stamm bring anything new to the table?  Not really.

Here's what I liked.  I liked that Cotton Marcus had a pretty believable reason for his loss of faith.  I liked the creepy physicality of Nell's possession.
I really liked how well the filmmakers portrayed Marcus as a showman; he was always in character, and even through the character there were moments when you could tell he was phoning it in.  My favorite moment with Marcus was when he asked the poor farmer, Louis, if he knew Latin.  Even when he is pretending to help, he's being a condescending prick; for me, that summarized the character perfectly.  I also liked the confusing (but foreshadowing) reaction Caleb has when he realizes Marcus is a fraud.  All of those things were handled very well.  The best thing about the film, though, is that there is a compelling reason why Reverend Marcus doesn't just cut bait and go home.  That is a weakness in just about any horror movie, so it was impressive to see it addressed in a little film with a no-name cast.
Above: cynical manipulation of emotions in progress

There's a lot more that I just plain disliked, though.  I didn't like how often the camera focused on the wrong person; it was usually pretty obvious, too.  I hated that the image from this poster doesn't show up in the damn movie.
Maybe the picture is upside down and she's doing a head stand?
I thought that I might have missed it and looked for a clip online, but it appears not.  As effective as the possession was, with Nell's weird posture and bone cracking, there wasn't much of it.  My biggest problem is with the film's indecisiveness.  We are obviously supposed to be rooting for Cotton Marcus, but he's just as obviously a bastard.  He is taking this family's money, lying to them, and he is preparing to humiliate them by showing how he dupes them in this documentary.  I am perfectly fine with moral ambiguity, but that (and the fact that it's not addressed) bothered me throughout the film.  The story also bounces back and forth as to whether Nell is possessed or not.  That is to be expected, given Marcus's cynicism, but the final answer makes the rest of the film an elaborate labyrinth of manipulation.  To put it simply, in order to convince Marcus of A, he had to first think B, but then think A, but then dismiss it and return to B, but then realize that A was the obvious answer.  It's stupid, and it insults my intelligence.  Just because there is a twist doesn't mean that you get to dismiss common sense.

Still, I thought this was one of the better uses of the hand-held camera and it did have a few genuinely unsettling moments.  It is far from convincing or completely satisfying, but it isn't boring.  My initial reaction to the film was fairly positive, but the more I thought about the plot twists, the more irritated I got.  I wouldn't stop someone from watching The Last Exorcism, but I wouldn't recommend it, either.  Did I get what I was looking for in this movie?  Not exactly.  The creepiness was there, just not enough to counter the problems I had.

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