A lot of people are going to walk out of the theater disappointed with The Last Exorcism, and for all the wrong reasons. The marketing makes it look terrifying, which is what marketing is supposed to do. It cranks the volume up, showcases most of the film’s creepiest moments, and plays very well on the the fact that Eli Roth and the people who made Dawn of the Dead are involved. Coupled with the already inherent power of how the idea of an exorcism plays on some people’s core beliefs, the handheld format of filmmaking is the easiest way to truly make the audience a party in the proceedings with its immediacy and intimacy. But a percentage of people are going to be disappointed because, while this shares some of the mood and execution that has made films like The Blair Witch Project a phenomenon, it’s actually too well acted and smart to be just another “shaky cam” movie. Making things more complicated is that it’s also not exceedingly scary or laden with great horror moments to stand on its own as a genre milestone. It’s a movie that rests somewhere in between, something that may cause some initial buyer’s remorse but ultimately give it a longer life as a story well told. Which it is.
Patrick Fabian plays evangelist Cotton Marcus, a man who has been preaching and making money for his congregation since he was a little boy. The trouble is, he’s an impostor. He doesn’t believe in God and has been going through the motions for years. He’s polished, loaded with knowledge, and has performed dozens of exorcisms on people he feels he’s helped in a roundabout way that doesn’t involve demons but just clearing the way for the people to heal themselves. He’s an interesting character, especially when realized by Fabian, an actor whose work I wasn’t familiar with previously. It’s a good role for him and the conceit of the film’s premise involves Marcus inviting a documentary crew to capture his work on tape, so it allows the actor to have some fun playing to the camera. Cotton has two reasons for doing what he does; he can expose exorcisms for being the hokum he believes they are and put a punctuation mark on his career and move on with his life free of religion. That said, this isn’t really a story of lost faith regained as much as it is a looking glass into two very different worlds colliding.
Though it is playing on a very modern trend in the genre, the movie is paced very much in the style of classic horror films. It’s almost all buildup and character development, which is a blessing for fans of quality moviemaking but a bane to people who are expecting “The Exorcist on speed”. The best aspects of The Last Exorcism involve Marcus choosing his ‘mark’, taking the camera crew on a journey to meet the family, and taking them and the audience on a tour through the layers of his deception. What keeps things moving is the leading man’s charm, involvement of the camera crew in his masquerade, and the way that no one is insulted in their characterization. This easily could have coasted on small-town stereotypes and broad renderings of “simple folk”. The film takes place in rural Louisiana, and there’s a tendency to generalize people of places like that. The family Marcus visits to help could have easily been a source for comic relief. There’s the angry son (Caleb Landry Jones) who wants the outsiders to go away. There’s the alcoholic father (Louis Herthum, excellent here and channeling his inner Xander Berkeley) mourning his dead wife and riding so hard on his faith everything else gets the short shrift, and there’s little Nell (Ashley Bell, who does good work in a tough role) who her family believes is suffering from demonic possession. There are moments where Cotton’s charm and use of sleight of hand, sound effects, and the Sweetzer family’s own faith as a weapon against them paint the film as a satire or a drama, and it’s very effective. And rare. The whole idea of this kind of flick typically serves as a shortcut. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It lives in the weird world between reality programming, amateur video, and direct to video horror. Seeing good characters, interesting ideas, and deft handling of the subject matter is surprising in a film like this and after nearly an hour of running time, I was pretty satisfied with the movie as a little drama, almost an anti-horror movie.
Then it gets crazy. What brings them to this little home in the swamplands is the reports of a girl experiencing strange phenomena and cattle mutilations, but what keeps them is a very real family with some very real troubles.
After ‘successfully’ exorcising the demon from young Nell, the satisfied preacher and his camera crew go to their hotel to prepare for the ride home and it becomes apparent that there may be something very wrong with the girl. Something based on an all-too real horror the girl is experiencing. Being good people, they try to help and layer after layer of what’s going on gets peeled off and The Last Exorcism in no uncertain terms becomes a horror flick. And it works. There’s a very real sense of caring between Cotton, his crew, and the little girl in danger that provides so much goodwill to the film. These aren’t one-dimensional horror movie characters but rather people who while marginalizing a family’s pain to prove a point initially, take it upon themselves to truly help them escape their torment once they realize they are truly in need of help.
The best horror walks a tightrope, balancing what’s onscreen with what our imagination fills in to create something that disturbs us, or speaks to us. Something that taps into the primal parts of us that we spend our lives doing our best to keep at bay or avoid testing. There’s a tug of war between showing too much and not enough. Nothing onscreen can match what’s in our imagination, but there are needs that need to be met to keep suspension of disbelief out of the mix and the audience invested. This movie falls just a little short in delivering those moments, and I’m disappointed to say that many of the creepy images and moments from the film are in the trailer but it doesn’t ruin the experience. There are some very tense moments and the film wisely errs on the side of delivering a more classical type of scare than something for shock value but in the spirit of the slow burn I was hoping for a few more moments of pure onscreen terror and I didn’t quite get it.
The climax of the movie is going to be divisive. There are a few points where it seems things are wrapping up but when it does come to a head, it really does. It’s an interesting sequence. Films like this are often only as good as their ending, and more often than not the ideas have been exhausted and it’s just a matter of tying loose ends up. This film ends in a manner that actually left me wanting more. A lot more. Though it’s a lot to take in, and in such a short amount of time, the film really opens up some interesting possibilities. Without the ending, the film is somewhat slight. I liked it, but it’s not the product being advertised. The ending as it stands escalates in a manner that is extremely inconsistent with the rest of the movie but at least it’s different. It definitely leaves me wanting more, and a sequel to a film in this subgenre is typically the last thing I’d want.
As a result, the film doesn’t have any one thing that makes it something to heavily endorse but it’s a worthy addition to the horror climate, and worth ten The Strangers simply based on the fact it led with its brain and didn’t cheapen itself within the trappings of its high concept.
There are some moments where the seams show. The documentary crew never really has enough of a voice in the film and there are moments where they rely too heavily on Cotton’s guidance, and though it serves moving the suspense along it feels forced at times. The last chunk of the film has far too many moments where the cameraman is running from place to place frantically, reveals a key bit of visual information, and then moves to the next pit stop. That motif loses weight with use. When the tension ratchets up, all of a sudden there’s noticeable score with frantic rhythms and orchestral hits accentuating the scares. While effective to an audience, it completely betrays the documentary style. Along the same lines, not knowing how this footage has found us is fine until the climax of the film. It’s not found footage like in The Blair Witch Project or some archived document like in Cloverfield. Seeing the way the film unfolds and then how it ends certainly makes one wonder if it would have helped perhaps clarifying just how this footage came to be what it is. There’s a level of polish to the footage that suggests some editing, yet without spoiling the film I’ll just say that it ends in a sketchy place that doesn’t lend itself to being a document the world would probably get to see.
But it’s a pretty effective movie so a lot of those little headaches are lessened if the finished product is worth it. And it is. Almost.
It’s a nice Friday night diversion. Keep the expectations low (and yes I write this knowing full well that it’s going to appear on a site heavily reskinned with The Last Exorcism all over it as ads for The Last Exorcism play) and there’s no reason to think this might be a nice exception to the rule that films like this have no right being this smart or effective.
And the ending… I dig it. I want more.