Film review: The Last Exorcism
This horror mockumentary is both charming and frightening, says Fred Rowson. But didn't somebody already do an exorcism movie?
Why do they not make good shark movies any more? Could it be to do with the fact that Jaws (1975) sort of got in all the good bits about sharks, and did them so well that it’s hard to do them again? You’ve got the fin above the water, people getting pulled under, sharks biting boats. It’s all there, and I don’t suppose that sharks have it in them to do much more. Which means that if you’re even going to think about making a shark movie, it’s got to be a little bit different. In Deep Blue Sea (which came out in 1999, and in which Samuel L. Jackson is eaten mid-way through; he, and thus is fee, is bitten in half) the sharks are genetically engineered cures for Alzheimer’s Disease which, according to the poster, makes them "Bigger. Smarter. Faster. Meaner". This is the kind of invention I’m talking about. So I don’t understand why Billy Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), another one of those seminal seventies screamers, hasn’t had the same effect on Exorcism movies that Jaws had on shark movies. According to The Last Exorcism, which last week was number one at the box office, it’s still cool to have your possessed be a seemingly nice young girl, who is home schooled, and can do contortions, vomiting, etcetera, etcetera. We’ve literally seen it all before, and why the devil never sees fit to possess a 33 year old waiter in a Brick Lane curry house, I don’t know.
Director Daniel Stamm dresses his story up in a mockumentary format that is the film’s saving grace, as well as its damnation. This "found footage" approach puts us in The Blair Witch Project (1999) territory. On the plus side, it means that all opening exposition is dealt with rigorously in the first five minutes, and that we get a good flavour of rural Americana. However, much like the demon-inhabited Nell (Ashley Bell) is chained to her bed, this format chains the film’s possibilities to an extent that the makers seem unwilling to admit. So we have the totally un-scary section (and this is a stand out, because much of the rest of the movie does work as a frightener) in which Nell, under the influence of demon Abalam, takes the movie camera and films herself wandering around aimlessly grunting, before hitting a cat with it. In the hands of more skilled filmmakers, this frame of "documentary" would prove a restriction that forced creativity. Here, it seems like a USP that gets inconvenient about two thirds of the way in. None of the performances are quite good enough to convince us that we’re not watching actors, and the situations in which the camera is still turned on become more and more implausible (though who am I to complain about that in a movie that involves demons and sacrifice?).
Despite all, however, The Last Exorcism works in two important ways. First of all, it has a home-brew charm that somehow excuses narrative sloppiness. The plot meanders disgracefully, and our leading character, Cotton Marcus – in a performance by Patrick Fabian that glues the film together – is totally incoherent about his goals and motivations in the opening interviews. Except that all of this feels rather charming and cheap. Alongside that, the mockumentary presentation completely nails the settings and paraphernalia of middle-American Christianity. All the churches are lacquered flooring and big windows, clipped lawns and clapping laymen. We’ve seen it all before in many a real documentary, but never in this hokey-fun-fairground context. Indeed, The Last Exorcism would be a better movie if it pushed this world more. We’re told at the beginning that Reverend Marcus has become cynical about the ways of the church, and he comments (in a clumsily foreshadowing way) that if one believes in God, then one must believe in devils, too. This statement should be giving the audience a way to read the movie, or a grain to go against. However, as the plot descends into Wicker Man territory, it becomes clear that the Stamm and his writers have no concept of narrative foreshadowing whatsoever. They should have taken a lesson from their own screenplay: the most interesting section of the movie is the fake exorcism, purely because the audience can see the strings.