Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Country: USA

The Blair Witch Project (1999) was a heavy stone thrown into calm waters, and ever since this event the ripples on the surface have steadily increased. In a single stroke The Blair Witch Project validated the internet as a source of promotion, and legitimised the faux documentary form within the terms of genre filmmaking as commercially viable. It did all the things that the far superior The Last Broadcast (1998) did not. Although The Last Broadcast failed to reach a large audience, it remains for me the most creatively successful mock-documentary made. The so called ‘mockumentary’ has almost become a genre in its own right. I say almost because it still relies heavily on the tropes of pre-existing genres, a reliance that totally undermines any documented fake reality the filmmakers are attempting to conjure up. These films should be able to address questions of reality in a more philosophical manner, but it is their attitude to reality which ultimately makes them little more than hollow exercises in style. In these films reality itself becomes a stylistic choice, and when all is said and done, reality is used merely as a device to create more scares. There is of course a far more pragmatic reason for the sudden upsurge in these type of films; the availability and cheapness of technology means they are dirt cheap to produce. But it seems that gone are the days when inspirational filmmakers could turn a low budget into an opportunity too find different ways of producing interesting results.

Unimaginative and derivative minds are slowly traversing their way through every sub-genre in the book. Witchcraft and the supernatural in The Blair Witch Project, the monster movie in Cloverfield (2008), zombies in Diary of the Dead (2007), and [REC] (2007) poltergeists in Paranormal Activity (2007), and alien visitations in The Fourth Kind (2009) and with the inevitable imbecility of bereft imaginations we have demonic possession in The Last Exorcism. The starting point for this painful waste of celluloid is not The Exorcist (1973 - which is another waste of celluloid) but the mild distractions of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). In its favour this film has a more restrained attitude to creating verisimilitude and actually works very well. To give The Last Exorcism its due, it does start out promisingly. In the early moments we are introduced to the evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), he is a showman and a performer, a carnival huckster who placed his faith in the medics who saved his son rather than god. He is a charlatan who cynically uses his oratorical gifts to keep his family solvent. Fabian is excellent as Marcus and is without a doubt the best thing about this film. He oozes charm and charisma, and radiates an arrogant self-assuredness which soon becomes strained by inexplicable events in New Orleans.

Marcus is out to disprove the necessity of exorcism and takes along a film crew to document the events. Marcus shows us all the tricks of the trade employed to convince the family of the reality of demonic possession and the film becomes a satirical parody of possession movies. I liked this aspect of it, but all too soon the film degenerates from a position of affectionate mockery, to one of total seriousness, a shift in tone which the film is never quite at ease with. There are token efforts to develop a pre-existing layer of atmospheric tension through the mixture of faiths and the superstitious climate of New Orleans, but this is also played for laughs. But what it does do is set up an echo which will resonate in the minds of the genre savvy, the result of which is that one can see the twist in the tale a mile off. The film spends far too much time and energy on ambiguities. This is a major problem of the mock-documentary form. In order for any sense of reality to feel authentic one has to continually question the irrationality of the events, in the case of this film there is always a feasible alternative to demonic possession. The film labours this to such an extent that in the end it doesn’t matter whether she is or not. The emphasis is on dysfunction rather than demons, and there are sundry hints of incest and the usual questions surrounding adolescent sexuality. Also thrown into the mix is teen pregnancy and the trauma of a dead mother.

The Last Exorcism is slow burning and would like to think that it is character based. But you will be hard pressed to find a single character here that doesn’t conform to some kind of generic stereotype. Cotton Marcus does at least develop, but he is the only one to do so. The events reaffirm his faith, rather than do the opposite, and he ends the film challenging the forces of evil with utter belief in himself and god. The other characters you can pretty much forget about. In addition to slow burning the film is also curiously lacking in scares. The Sweetzer’s house is located on an isolated farmstead, but the space is not utilised in a particularly effective way. This is a horror film remarkably lacking in tension. The finale in which the film shifts gear will no doubt divide audiences. It didn’t work well for me because I telegraphed it far too early, but it is just one more moment that adds to a very uneven tone. The self-reflexive and satirical elements of The Last Exorcism save this from being a total waste of time, but as a horror film it is a dismal failure. I still wait for the first mock-documentary horror film that is able to escape the shackles of its genre and say something illuminating about the nature of reality.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I liked it. I thought Cotton Marcus was a believable charmer with his various charlatan tricks, and the early bits of the film were amusing and diverted me from my original belief that this would be just a POV cash-in version of THE EXORCIST. I thought it was effectively creepy and tense throughout. The end for me was more about a doomed, RACE WITH THE DEVIL-style conclusion where the main characters are waaay over their heads in a conspiracy bigger than them or a simple "possession" angle. I guess I just expected less, so was more pleasantly surprised. *shrug

  2. I honestly expected to dislike this one immensely and wasn't paying all that much attention to it while it was on till later in the movie. I started it over and enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would especially picking out minor details that foreshadow what will come later.

    I enjoyed the 'faith' aspect of the story especially in that several signs are thrown into the dis believing preachers face that had he not treated his profession with little regard, good may not have been the weaker power by the end. By that time, it was too late for him and his crew.

    The one major weakness in the movie, at least for me, was the last shot. I'm sure there could be some moderately plausible reason as to how the camera footage would be found (intact), but the way the film closes, it strains credibility even though is was still right creepy just the same.

    Great reading as always, Shaun!

  3. @ J Astro; Thanks for the comment sir! - I couldn't agree more about Cotton Marcus, a cult character in the making. I was reminded of RACE WITH THE DEVIL as well, there is a shot towards the end of the film that felt as if it was almost lifted from it.

    @ Brian; I guess my whole gripe with these kind of films is that there is so much unrealised potential. As each one comes along I optimistically think that it can really do something special. But time and time again reality and the documentary mode is little more than a gimmick. I do think that maybe an American audience would get more out of this. The brand of evangelism seen in the film is almost unheard of in the UK. Questions of faith and religion aside though, I just don't think this works particularly well as a horror film. Thanks for the ever informative comment buddy!

  4. For the most part, I enjoyed this one, I just hated the ending. What I enjoyed the most about were the ideas that it explored about religion being something that messes with peoples heads. It had its moments, and some atmosphere...but that ending felt tacked on. Still, the movie manages to put some interesting points across anyways.

    Agree that the reason why these kind of movies are proliferating is because they are so cheap to produce, in times like these, thats exactly what studios are looking for. Make lots of money while using little.

  5. I agree with you on your thoughts on the original exorcist-overated, some very well shot scenes but the majority of it's impact lies in the effects, no real fear factor other than that

  6. @Franco; I think that cheapness is not an excuse for unimaginative dross. The problem seems to be at the moment that low budgets are not being used in an inspirational way. There is little to distinguish the big budgeted concept horror movies, and the low budget independent ones. There was a time when the latter arena was where revisions to a genre were made.

    @Cal; I couldn't agree more buddy, THE EXORCIST is not a film I particularly admire.


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