[So, I started this review the weekend The Last Exorcism came out, but I was never motivated to finish… which should tell you how good this movie truly was. However, tonight William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist is playing on big screens across the nation, so I decided to finally finish this piece and also to take this moment to say: go see The Exorcist tonight! It’s an excellent day for an exorcism.]
Director Daniel Stamm and writing team Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland take a different approach to the exorcism genre with The Last Exorcism, employing the increasingly popular mockumentary style ( a la The Blair Witch Project, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, REC, Paranormal Activity, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, et al.) to interesting effect. Ultimately, however, the film is a disappointment, completely abandoning its intelligent examination of science versus faith in favor of mere spectacle. (And yes, I know I just said I’m ok with mere spectacle, and I am, but if you try to switch from drama to spectacle you run the risk of me calling “shenanigans.”)
Between the fact that The Last Exorcism is rated PG-13 (most PG-13 horror sucks, and if you don’t believe me, Scott Weinberg can prove it), that it’s called “The Last Exorcism” (for some reason having “the last” in the title seems kind presumptuous, don’t ask me why, it just does, except for The Last Picture Show… and maybe The Last Dragon… oh, and The Last Boy Scout… ok, maybe this point is invalid… fortunately, it’s not my last point of contention), there has never been (and probably will never be) a movie about an exorcism as good as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and that this is a film presented by Eli Roth (I have some seriously mixed emotions when it comes to Eli Roth, hate Cabin Fever and Hostel, kinda like Hostel 2, love his trailer for Thanksgiving and would actually like to see a feature-length version; he seems like a pretty cool dude in general, and he played the Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds), so it’s a small miracle that I even saw The Last Exorcism.
But, I did. And for the first hour and twenty minutes (or so) The Last Exorcism is a fairly interesting look at a preacher’s attempt to debunk exorcism. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an evangelical wunderkind whose all grown up and decided that he wants to change his ways and repent for any damage he’s done by performing his sort of snake oil exorcism. Enlisting the help of a documentary crew to follow him as he attempts to redeem himself by performing his last “exorcism,” he heads out into the backwoods of Louisiana to help the Sweetzer family with what they believe to be the genuine demonic possession of the cherubic, young Nell (Ashley Bell).
Of course, Cotton knows better, and sets out to prove that Nell simply a victim of her faith, that the demon can be “exorcised” through the power of suggestion. He pulls out all the stops, letting the audience in on the tricks of the trade when it comes his brand of exorcism, proving once and for all that exorcism is nothing more than a psychosomatic placebo… or so he thinks… and that’s where The Last Exorcism loses me.
They spend the entire film setting up that exorcism isn’t real, that demonic possession isn’t real, that it’s all in the mind of the “possessed” and that it’s largely a psychological phenomenon involving the belief in possession… all of which is familiar territory, that his been touched on in The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and even Ghostbusters for that matter. And I was ok with that. If The Last Exorcism were an actual documentary about a preacher debunking exorcism, it would be fine and dandy. Even when they’re setting out to prove that it’s a psychosomatic affliction, there are still some pretty creepy moments. A person who wholeheartedly believes they are possessed, down to the core of their unconscious self, is probably just as dangerous as someone who actually is possessed. The filmmakers could have run with that. But no, they wanted to have their cake and eat it too.
So, after all the foreplay of the first two acts of the film, cranking up the tension as much as they could, we reach the climactic moment… the moment of consummation, if you will, and they blow it… all over the place… leaving us supremely unsatisfied. Instead of continuing the satisfactory story that they’d been setting up, they decide to try to completely switch gears and throw in a Shyamalanian twist, which doesn’t even work for Shyamalan most of the time (as Charlotte was so kind to point out), and say that there actually was a demon the whole time. Then the film quickly devolves into the realm of god-awful, hackneyed, b-movie pseudo-slasher fare… just plain bad.
To me, the idea of someone who believes that they’re possessed so strongly that a sort of “demonic possession” does indeed manifest itself is frightening enough, if not more so. When something’s plausible, it seems a bit scarier… to me anyway. And what’s worse, they showed their hand halfway into the second act. They hinted at a dire end for the protagonists, kept us on the edge of our seats, guessing the whole time, then instead of a deftly handling the tension they’d spent the last hour building, they CGI’ed all over the placed… taking the fairly intelligent film they’d been making and, essentially, wiping their asses with it. If only they had kept it subtle and continued on the path they started out on… sadly, they did not… and it was like watching a train wreck. I was shocked and dismayed and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t, out of sheer disbelief.
And it’s a shame, because they actually had some great things going for them. Fine acting. Patrick Fabian was quite charming and engaging as Cotton Marcus. He humanized a character that could have come off as much more despicable. Ashley Bell’s performance as both the naive, young, innocent and the monstrously depraved demon-incarnate were both quite good. Her creepy double-jointed contortions, which she did herself without any CGI or special effects, were particularly unnerving. The film had a great look. The mood and the tone were spot on… again, until the last ten minutes or so. The documentary style worked quite well, and reminded me very much of Alexandra Pelosi’s Friends of God. The “reality” of the situation was quite creepy, these people who believe in possession and the occult so staunchly. That was truly unnerving. But all in all, the last ten minute of The Last Exorcism ruined it for me, dragging down a promising film that could have been a solid B.