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August 29, 2010

The Last Exorcism

2010, Dir. by Daniel Stamm.

I feel like I should write a sermon, not a review, about The Last Exorcism.  The latest entry in the "homemade horror" subgenre that has polarized viewers for more than a decade, it's a film that seems completely devoted to itself; a film that believes in what it's putting on screen.  I'm not necessarily saying the film has a religious message, or that it has a message that speaks to the contrary.  I'm saying that the film feels like it has been put together by people who have complete faith in the project they are involved with.

I feel obliged to tell all of you that, if we're putting it all on the line, I fully believe there is a God out there.  This is partially because I was raised that way, and partially because I can't fathom a world in which there isn't some kind of driving force behind the things that go on in our lives without becoming a bit depressed.  With that in mind, it was incredibly easy for me to relate with the character who is our protagonist through this film, Reverend Cotton Marcus.  Played by veteran character actor Patrick Fabian (who I immediately knew as that creepy professor from the third season of Veronica Mars), Cotton Marcus is presented to the viewer as a showman who is more interested in entertaining his congregation than he is in spreading the beliefs of his church.  Some, including the documentary crew who follow him throughout the film, would label him a fraud, but that's not his word or mine.  Reverend Marcus believes in the healing power of the idea behind religion, he simply doesn't have a connection with it as a tangible and visible force.  In a way he reminds me of Fright Night's Peter Vincent, one of my favorite horror characters, because Marcus is a character who possesses all the knowledge and charm necessary to complete his mission - he simply doesn't have the real-world experience.  We can safely assume, based on the title of the film and its marketing, that this is going to change during these 87 minutes of footage.  Reverend Marcus does not share that belief.

The parallel to Cotton Marcus is young Nell Sweetzer (played by Ashley Bell), the girl who may be possessed by a demon or devil.  Early in the film we learn that Cotton was 10 years old when he performed his first exorcism, and it's quickly established that he never really had any choice as to where his life was headed in a spiritual sense.  The same can be said for Nell, who lost her mother at 14 and was quickly thrown into home schooling by her father.  These two individuals, whose paths were determined by those who controlled their youth, face off as conduits on opposing sides of the biblical war between good and evil.  There are doubts on both sides of their chess match - on one side we don't know if Cotton really believes any of what he says, on the other we don't know if Nell has mental or demonic deficiencies - but the weight of the situation seems to land squarely on Cotton's ability to determine the truth of the predicament.

Even though I instantly recognized him from Veronica Mars (one of the best shows ever, man), Fabian immediately became that Reverend in my eyes.  His lead performance seems almost effortless, as if he were born to fill the role.  The rest of the cast is also spot on, with Bell owning the role of Nell.  She steals some scenes with her innocence, which is offset when she later presents an intimidating physical presence that rivals any possessed girl on screen.  Louis Hurthum and Caleb Landry Jones, as Nell's father and brother, also hold their own in director Daniel Stamm's film, which preaches simplicity while keeping its goals lofty as it barrels toward a shocking finale.  Some may call the ending abrupt, but in retrospect it feels like every event of the film was leading directly to this event, and I felt it answered every necessary question.

The Last Exorcism won't set all audiences on fire, but that's to be expected.  Like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and other docu-horrors before it, my screening ended with a frustrated tween loudly proclaiming that it was "the worst movie ever".  You can almost set your watch by the backlash these films get from audiences who have no idea what they're getting into when they go to the theater.  Most of the time, these are the viewers who simply cannot let go of their skeptical attitudes, and who don't want to get caught up in a movie by giving up their control over the situation.

As one who believes, both spiritually and cinematically, I found it very easy to lose myself in The Last Exorcism.  I can't attribute this to anything less than the complete devotion to the project by the people who made the film.  Like Cotton Marcus to his flock, these actors and filmmakers are willing to put aside everything else and become what the open-minded viewer wants to see.  The result, in simplest terms, is a horror film that convinced me to believe in it.

If nothing else, I'll never think of the Christmas Carol "What Child Is This?" the same way I used to.


The Man-Cave said...

Haha, I recognized him from a great episode of Burn Notice but, like you, quickly only saw him as Cotton Marcus. He was fantastic! Great in depth review, Mike! Glad to see some more of the positive reviews. I honestly enjoyed this one a great deal and can't wait for another viewing on DVD.

Anonymous said...

I think he had more than just lack of real world experience to get him through. I do think there was some commentary here about the state of current religion, explicitly implied or not. But that is for another day and another blog post :)

Great review Mike. Just saw this today and posted my own thoughts. Amazing film and it may very well be the best horror film I've seen this year.

ZedWord said...

At the Last Exorcism Q and A during Toronto After Dark, I asked Eli Roth how he felt he film would play among religious audiences and secular audiences. I'm really interested in following the reactions this film provokes in the religious and nonreligious (such as myself).

Anonymous said...

I cringe every time someone uses TBWP and Paranormal Activity in the same sentence with The Last Exorcism. Not because they're wrong, from all views it looks as if the comparisons are dead on. But, because both of those movies were atrocious wastes of my time, for the most part and I have this physical aversion to docu-horror.

I have yet to see the movie, but I'm now dreading it. If it's anything like either of the two movies above, it will be me, a old, haggard, bitty witch proclaiming that it's the worst movie "EVAR".

I hope I'm wrong.