The Last Exorcism is a small budget horror film that is shot in the same hand-held, documentary style as Paranormal Activity (2007), Cloverfield (2008) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). Those who are unhinged at the sight of hand-held camera motion, you have been forewarned.
As a quick commentary on this easy to apply and very cheap to produce method of filmmaking, I must say that without the advances in consumer level digital photography and editing software, this style of filmmaking would never exist. Whether you like this style or not, it has certainly led to increased opportunities for amateurs and semi-pro filmmakers to get their visions out there and perhaps turn a profit out of it. This movement, in the long run, will affect positive change for the old blood world of the Hollywood machine if for any other reason than by producing yet another independent (at least somewhat) body of work to compete for studio production dollars.
The films I’ve mentioned are perhaps the best success stories of this grassroots movement, but are definitely the very definition of imperfect movie experiences. The Last Exorcism certainly opens itself up to the same level of scrutiny. If the audience is expecting the same type of visual shock one expects from Eli Roth (as the ad campaign has been shamelessly crass promoting him as the producer), I’m sorry to say the audience will be disappointed. Roth’s creative input into this was minimal.
Having said that, I feel the story of The Last Exorcism is by far the most relevant and thought-provoking of all the “home-video-style” feature films. The premise is that a film crew is shooting a documentary about modern day Christian evangelicals, their role in the community, how they make profit and the somewhat dubious ways they go about their work. The crew follows the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) on an unadulterated exposé to the showmanship, con artistry and psychology of an “exorcism” in an attempt to (in the Reverend’s words) do God’s good work by educating the public to the seedy underbelly of this industry because he has finally lost the taste for the immoral nature of the work.
The film devotes a very healthy amount (almost half of the film) of screen time to getting the audience acquainted with the Rev. Cotton to try to develop some level of sympathy with the character. By the time he sets off on the journey to perform his last “exorcism,” the audience is fully aware of his upbringing, motives and the fact that he is a relatively nice guy, despite being a very convincing sleaze-ball. By the time the Reverend has realized what he’s gotten himself into, all hell has broken loose and it is too late to turn back. Although this film does take some very conventional horror film twists towards the end of the film and the entire framework of the plot was ripped from a classic horror movie I will only use initials to identify (R.B.), I felt the writing in general was good and the dialogue in particular to be spot on for the populace of the Louisiana backwoods. I congratulate co-writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland for this tale’s simplicity, but more importantly for the very strong themes that drive the story forward.
Not often enough do feature films inspire me to comment on the story’s use of theme, but anything involving the very nature of good and evil and the supernatural inspiration for either puts my radar on high alert. The theme of many faces, in particular the many faces one’s notion of evil assumes to deflect attention from it, is by far the most prevalent. The obvious reference to “many faces” is that of demonic possession: a seemingly innocent individual hides a sub-dermal malevolence representing extreme depravity. However, the more important reference is using an evangelical pastor as the main character. The face that evangelicals put on to “save” its public is very different from the one that profits from its public. It may be difficult to digest, but a church is more than a gathering of followers; it is also a socio-economic entity and as such it conducts itself like a business and everything from the Vatican to the smallest Mosque in the Middle East is fueled by money in addition to faith.
The Last Exorcism makes no apologies about making this direct connection, nor does it imply anything less than the temptation of such dependency to dictate a church’s methodology. Pastor Cotton is a good-looking, intelligent and charismatic man that oozes trust from every pore of his skin. Although he may tell you he wants to appeal to your soul, his true purpose is to appeal to your wallet and the character specifically says as much in so few words. An evangelical turning triple agent as some form of roundabout redemption is too interesting and fascinating that I wouldn’t be surprised to find that either of the writers or the director had some personal history of being duped by a faith-based organization.
The other theme that this film develops is the true nature of evil. Pastor Cotton says that if one believes that God is as real as the chair you are sitting in, that same person must believe in the existence of Satan in equal measure. Physical manifestations of actual demons and devils are not within recorded history, but actions widely regarded as evil (enacted by man) have been. There’s no need to name examples, I presume. Although the true nature of evil is as intangible as the true nature of good, it is common knowledge that the individual has an equal capacity for both. This theme combined with the “many faces” theme produces a volatile reflection when applied to the real world and those claiming to be true men of God. Priests who sexually molested children all over the world would be perfect examples of the combined themes that the Pastor Cotton character represents. The impact of these themes with the imagery of the plot all but invokes absolute distrust in the people that represent formal religion. I would not be surprised to see director Daniel Stamm as a celebrity guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show.
The actors’ performances are by far the greatest technical strength of this production because effects and cinematography were non-existent. Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus does a superior job selling his character to the audience. The extended documentary interviews with him prior to the “exorcism” gave Patrick plenty of opportunities to do so. However, the scenes in which he shows his magician techniques that sell a “supernatural” experience to the unsuspecting audience speaks volumes above any dialogue his character engages. The creepy/innocent girl-with-long-hair motif has been thoroughly played out by contemporary horror films, but that takes nothing away from Ashley Bell’s performance as Nell, the young girl who is “possessed.” She pulls off the innocent country girl much better than the evil possessed girl, but she displays excellent instincts when she shifts facial expression and demeanor ever so slightly as the camera transitions to or from her character. This keeps the audience guessing if she’s still there or if it’s the demon in disguise. Finally, the character that one cannot help but feel for is Louis Sweetzer, Nell’s father played by Louis Herthum. Mr. Herthum plays on the audience’s sympathies unlike any other actor and the key lies within taking advantage of the various close-ups of his character. The man’s face simply bursts with a level of sadness and despair I have not seen since films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994). I would have liked to see his character be more proactive, especially during the “exorcisms,” but then the lion’s share of the screen time is monopolized by the Rev. Cotton and whatever else he seems to be focused on at the time.
The Last Exorcism is a thinking person’s horror film. If what you want is a slasher/gore-fest/monster-mash, this film is not for you. The whole notion of creepy crawlers and shadows and things that go bump in the night stopped being scary upon exiting childhood. The notion that your next door neighbor might be the next Jeffrey Dahmer is far more terrifying. The ending of the film is neither surprising nor satisfying as it is literally drawn out to the audience in the film itself, but that was forgivable in light of the very serious thoughts and feelings it evoked about the real world.
To quote one of my favorite films, The International (2009): “There is a difference between truth and fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” The Last Exorcism forces one to supply some validity to that statement, at least from the perspective of Western Society. Look at the uproar that was created from the nonsensical ways television shows like The Sopranos and Lost ended. How much uproar do we hear concerning the war on terror? Of course, one could also point out how much “truth” we the public have been exposed to in regards to that subject matter and, to some extent, we have all been asked to make leaps of faith.