The Last Exorcism

The most fun that horror has been in some time.

To be kind to 2010, it has been a sedate year for horror fare; The Wolfman was a crushing disappointment, The Crazies thrilled only intermittently, and Piranha 3D, while hilarious, focused more on irony than terror. Fortunately, The Last Exorcism is just the tonic horror fans have been waiting for, and despite suffering from a rough landing in the third act, it is a refreshingly clever and intense stab at familar material.

Under the guise of the indeed overused mockumentary horror conceit, The Last Exorcism features a camera crew following the disenfranchised Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) as he attempts to expose demonic possession for the supposed fraud that it is. Though virtually raised in a ministry and still revered as a charismatic preacher in his home town, Marcus’ faith has grown weary, and he now only preaches in order to bring in money for his wife and young son. He is to perform one final exorcism in this documentary, hoping to emphasise the artifice that goes into faking an exorcism, and for this mission, he chooses noble farmer Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who claims that his innocent teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) has been possessed by the Devil.

Why The Last Exorcism works despite an almost shopworn style is that, unlike admittedly better “handheld horror” films such as Cloverfield, Exorcism engages fully with the idea of the camera as an active participant in the mayhem. While Cloverfield and several other similar films often involve the camera in unrealistic, often physically impossible scenes – such as how one character in Cloverfield scales a steep building while holding the unwieldy camera – this film instead draws our attention to the awkward clunkiness of holding a camera once the chips are down. Yes, there are still Blair Witch-inspired scenes of people running while still miraculously holding the camera, but the frequent unwillingness of the film’s characters – particularly Nell’s bewildered father – to participate in the filming keeps things agreeably sketchy as just such events would be for real. One scene, in which a presumably possessed Nell wields the camera while in a catatonic state, obviously reeks of gimmickry, yet within the scope of the film’s plot, that the Devil is a pretty cheeky force and wants to mess with our protagonists, it actually works.

Just as with its style, the film’s narrative takes an incredibly familiar schema – that of a possession, causing many to no doubt presume this to be a straight Exorcist sequel – and confounds it, injecting it with a dose of intellect that this type of film hasn’t seen in years. In introducing a rare character – that of a deeply disillusioned preacher, played superbly by Patrick Fabian – writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have managed to take mere horror formula and utilise it as a jumping point in which to examine the indoctrinating nature of the church and the duality of science and faith. While Marcus is beyond arrogant in his charismatic showmanship, we admire his blasé, comic subversion of everything around him, and for this reason, when things go wrong, we actually don’t want him to die.

Finding likeable characters in horror fare is virtually impossible these days, yet here, with virtual no-name actors no less (aside from Fabian), director Daniel Stamm has discovered just that. Though the cameraman and the boom mic girl are mostly background noise, Ashley Bell as Nell perfectly conveys the sweetness of an unassuming girl uprooted from a humble existence into something incredibly sinister, and again, when it all goes awry, we want her to get out of this in one piece. Perhaps even better is Louis Herthum as her impassioned father, willing to go to the ultimate lengths to save his daughter’s soul, while wrangling with the ethics of the documentary film and enduring his own near-crisis of faith.

So clever is the manner in which Stamm plays with our expectations of the genre – in treating the exorcism as a farce, holding a mirror up to our own submission to the artifice of cinema – that it’s so disappointing that the film ends in a manner so conventional that it must have been studio-imposed. Had the final three minutes, or even just the final minute been sliced off, this would have been a horror classic in the making rather than a mostly great film that’s stilted by a tacky, cynical “gotcha!” of a climax. Where the film seems to be going as it winds down is so brave for a film of this type, and it is incredibly disappointing that those higher up presumably lacked faith in the brilliance of the idea (as occured with the changed ending of last year’s otherwise superb Paranormal Activity).

Still, a duff climax can be forgiven when the proceding 80 minutes are so taut, well-acted, and visually enticing, especially for a film made on a meagre $1.8m. Stamm has a future in the genre if he so pleases, and in this gripping indie horror, there’s genuine hope for horror films yet.


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