The Last Exorcism

The Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is the kind of guy who could sell ice to an eskimo. Unfortunately, this talent is mostly wasted on the kind of circus-tent preaching that lifts the collective spirits of churchgoers along with their wallets. Cotton is aware of his own hypocrisy, though (he even mischievously works in a recipe for banana bread during a sermon), and seeks to correct the dangerous fundamentalism that has led his colleagues to perform fraudulent and sometimes tragic exorcisms. To do so, he invites a small documentary crew to chronicle his attempts to "exorcise" a demon from the body of teenager Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell). Intending to use the girl's own fanatical beliefs to "cure" her, Marcus employs age-old parlor tricks to create the illusion of an actual demonic presence which he then dramatically vanquishes. Belief created the "possession," and so belief can destroy it. Unfortunately, things don't go quite as planned. After all, this IS The Last Exorcism. When this was released last year, I was struck by the fact that someone had the cojones to actually make it. As far as I'm concerned, there really isn't an "exorcism" genre, just an absolute masterpiece called The Exorcist followed by a bunch of sad imitations. This also goes for the non-existent "killer shark" genre. If you dare to make a film with either of those subjects, you better be ready to be compared to two of the best films ever made. Surprisingly, The Last Exorcism holds its own in that regard. It actually has a fresh approach to the subject, as well as a smart take on the film's primary convention: The Mock Documentary.

Now, this film has nothing to do with Blair Witches or paranormal entities. It's not a "found footage" movie but rather a finished, edited documentary complete with musical score and credits. It's closer in style to films like This Is Spinal Tap and virtually the entire filmography of Christopher Guest. In fact, the first third of the film plays much like one of Guest's eccentric character satires. Cotton is very well played by the familiar character actor Patrick Fabian. It's a difficult part, since the fire and brimstone it requires produces a certain level of showy acting that almost defies believability, but Fabian never loses his connection with the audience as a real person. The mock documentary form has real power through its intimacy. The fourth wall is effectively broken, but without the theatricality that comes from a Ferris Bueller-like direct address. In this format, talking to the camera, and in turn the audience, is an accepted conceit. Director Daniel Stamm exploits this advantage by also having Nell herself continually peek out at us. This is what separates this film from even The Exorcist itself. As brilliant as that film was, it was very weak in the characterization department. It was ice cold and clinical, which also made it so disturbing. You got the impression that director William Friedkin did not like any of the characters, did not care about them, and was comfortable putting them through as much physical and emotional torture as possible.

The Last Exorcism draws you in through its characters first as human beings, with all their weaknesses and frailties, as well as great courage. Stamm likes these people, and he does a good job of expressing to the audience just why they are worth caring about. He's also confident that the audience knows that a film with Exorcism in its title will likely "bring it" some time before the end credits roll. But if you have lost the art of watching a horror movie that doesn't toss in a scare every 7-10 minutes, rest assured that some really disturbing events WILL unfold. Remember, patience is a virtue, and your commitment will be well rewarded. Stamm does not tap dance around the possession story, and actress Ashley Bell not only gives a fine performance as Nell, but also has an amazing ability to twist her body up in the strangest, most surreal positions. One look at the film's poster will give you an idea of the nightmarish imagery.

What I ended up liking most about the film was its matter-of-fact ambiguity. I know the film's ending has been quite controversial, but it works for me since it ends up creating more questions than answers. I always thought that the TV show Unsolved Mysteries was one of the scariest things on the air, mostly because of the formulaic way each segment ended with a series of troubling, unanswered questions. This is where the real horror lies, not in finite truths but instead a never-ending uncertainty. Whatever happened to Cotton Marcus and the Sweetzers in The Last Exorcism is most certainly uncertain. Having been shot on HD Video, the film's aspect ratio is perfect for 16:9 widescreen home viewing without enhancement. Much of the film takes place in the dark, but details aren't lost in the shadows. It's not Lawrence of Arabia or anything, but it looks as good as a digitally shot documentary is supposed to look.

The same goes for the soundtrack. It's 5.1 Dolby Digital and filled with the terrible sounds of possession. The mix is well handled, though, and the music score by Nathan Barr adds immeasurably to the experience. I know there's also been some debate as to whether a documentary should even have a score in order to be believable, but when was the last time you saw one that wasn't scored? Things have changed these days, and remember, the film is not "found footage" presented raw -- it's been edited by someone.

Where the DVD really shines though is in the extras. Two separate audio commentaries, one with producer Eli Roth and his partners that focuses on the filmmaking lesson of producing your own low-budget film. (Though $1.5 million is still a lot of money for most budding filmmakers.) The second commentary is with director Daniel Stamm and his main cast -- Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, and Louis Herthum. This one focuses on the day-to-day work of making the film and the environment Stamm created to help the actors immersed in their roles.

Along with the commentaries is a decent "talking head" behind-the-scenes piece called "The Devil You Know: The Making of The Last Exorcism" and a documentary piece called "Real Stories of Exorcism: Interviews with Actual Victims and Participants." I quickly shut that one off as soon as I saw the warning that I may be letting evil in my house if I played it without first reading the "Protection Prayer." Luckily this is also provided on the DVD.

One final and very interesting extra is the "2009 Cannes Film Festival Teaser Trailer". A kind of two-minute "proof of concept," it's a short scene depicting Ashley Bell undergoing an exorcism ritual that ends in her death. This was used to secure buyers in the international market, and it's quite effective as a sales tool proving that Bell had the chops to convince as the demonically possessed character and that Stamm could turn out a movie that looked realistic.