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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Voynaristic Review: The Last Exorcism

Up until about the last eight or so minutes, I was really into The Last Exorcism. Then it all fell apart at the end, but in a way that was actually kind of interesting to dissect.

Director Daniel Stamm, who previously made suicide mockumentary A Necessary Death, uses a similar style here, in an interesting way that at first feels almost like a Christopher Guest film (yes, the first part of the film is actually very funny) before taking a sharp turn somewhere around Middle-of-Nowhere, Louisiana toward more of a Blair Witch-Paranormal Activity “found footage” style.

For me, this technique was less effective here than with Blair Witch (which scared me but also made me kind of nauseous) or Paranormal Activity (which, to be perfectly honest, scared me enough when I watched a Slamdance screener of it in my Park City hotel room a few years ago that I made one of my guy friends sleep in the room with me that night — and we both wanted the bathroom light left on). I think partly why this is the case is that both Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity felt to a certain extent like they really could be “found footage” in the way they were shot and cut, whereas The Last Exorcism feels a little too slick to have that faux-authentic feel. It’s still a pretty good film though — up until the end. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

The Last Exorcism kicks off by introducing us to the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a cynical fundamentalist preacher who, in addition to getting his congregation riled up and reaching deep into their pocketbooks every Sunday, performs the occasional exorcism on the side — a task he views with the same emotional disconnect with which, say, a software engineer might view taking on the occasional side contract building a web site for extra cash. Someone has a need (read: they believe their loved one is possessed by a demon), Cotton provides a service to resolve their problem (read: he “exorcises” the demon using a variety of techniques as old as snake-oil salesmen).

Cotton, see, was trained at his father’s knee for the profession of preaching since he was just a wee tyke. He’s never known any other path, nor had any other options shown to him (although he notes, with a self-deprecating grin, that his skills could be used just as well selling things), and now here he is with a wife, a son and a mortgage to pay, just like anyone else, and preaching is the job that pays the bills, nothing more.

He views preaching not as a calling from God, so much as just what his job is — although he’s very convincing with his congregation and doesn’t short them on selling his own passion for the task at hand, however feigned it may be). In this respect, Cotton is no different from anyone who gamely does the job they’ve been stuck in for years or decades, because the bills have to be paid and this is the way in which they’ve chosen to trade time for money.

But Cotton isn’t dealing in commodities or used cars, he’s dealing in the faith of his congregation, in their belief in both a higher power and what comes after death, in both God and the Devil (you can’t believe in one without believing in the other, the movie’s tagline tells us). Cotton seems to believe in neither, but his lack of faith — or perhaps, more accurately, his faith that all that he sells to his congregation week after week is one big con — is about to be shaken.

Cotton has decided to invite some documentary filmmakers along on his last exorcism, with the goal of unmasking all the secret tricks exorcists use in performing their hocus pocus (there is a roundabout explanation for why he would do such a thing, but really, it feels like someone asked, “But why would he do this?” and someone cobbled together a reason).

Through the documentary Cotton will, in short, reveal the very human man behind the green curtain, shattering the faith of the believers in demonic possession by revealing the “possession” to be all in the victim’s mind and the exorcising of demons to be a parlor trick. Toward that end, he selects as his final “customer” from a stack of exorcism requests on his desk a weathered manila envelope containing the plea for help of Louis, a widowed farmer in rural Louisana, who fears his young daughter has been possessed by a demon.

And so Cotton and his filmmaker friends venture out to rural Louisiana — a superstitious place where people believe in things like voodoo, Satanic cults and demonic possession the way that an urban hipster believes in studio apartments furnised by IKEA, the importance of good coffee and the necessity of skinny jeans: they a such a part of the landscape of the region, it is impossible to imagine life without them. If we didn’t already know and believe this, the film hammers it home by tossing in some interviews with the local-yokels that convince us that everyone who lives in rural Lousiana is either half-crazy or half-stupid, or some combination thereof. Also, they have bad fashion sense and a tendency to bad teeth, but they are pretty funny to listen to and pretty easy to feel smugly superior to, as Cotton confirms with the occasional nudge-wink in the camera’s general direction.

This whole section of the film, by the bye, was vastly underused; there are hints here and there of what might be to come, but more in the way that hints are dropped in, say, an episode of Scooby-Doo to mislead us as to who the real villain is, than in a way that could have really enhanced and heightened our sense of fear and trepidation. This is the point of the film at which we ought to start feeling that things might not go exactly how Cotton has planned, and instead it’s mostly wasted with laughing at the stupid locals who believe in Satan and UFOs. Oh, those rural folk from Louisiana! Ain’t they a pack of characters? Yee-haw.

We finally get to the remote farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), his stalwart, defensive son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and his sweet — albeit possibly possessed by one of Satan’s minions — 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), and it’s here that the film takes a sudden shift away from the humorous mockumentary style ala Guest and Company and into the realm of the horror mockumentary. Because that Nell … whoo boy.

She’s so sweet, so stammering and shy, so innocent … except for when she isn’t. The livestock keep turning up dead, and Nell keeps waking up with her white, Little House on the Prairie-style nightgowns drenched in blood, with no idea of what she night have done while sleeping. Brother Caleb is protective of his sister (or is he?), at first trying to run off the preacher and his faithful camera crew, then seeming to establish some camaraderie with Cotton. Louis, for his part, is distraught about the loss of his wife a couple years back (she’s buried in the backyard, which I don’t think is legal here in Seattle but apparently that’s how they do things in rural Louisiana) and concerned about both what might be going on with his daughter in jthere here and now and the state of her soul for all eternity (or is he more than what he seems?)

From there, things go rapidly from bad to worse, as Cotton, confronted by increasing indications that Nell may not be just a another case of a mentally ill person who thinks she’s possessed by demons, but an actual, real-life, holy-crap-what-the-hell-was-THAT instance of possession by an honest-to-gosh minion of Hell. And all of this, for the most part, is done very effectively. The cast of unknowns (necessary for the mockumentary format) gives some good performances overall, bolstered by some pretty spectacular turns by Patrick Fabian as Cotton and Ashley Bell as Nell. There are, however, a couple things that keep The Last Exorcism from being a really great horror film.

The first problem (which, in all honesty, the studio may not see as a problem at all) is the decisions that were obviously made in order to garner the coveted PG-13 rating and thereby guarantee that teens, who like horror films, will flock to theaters to see this film. And I get that, I really do … why would you want your film to have an R rating and cut out all those precious box office dollars if you can help it? For much of the film, this works just fine, but as the tension ramps up and we near the film’s climax, Stamm pulls back a little too far, resolves some things a bit too quickly, when pushing the envelope just a little bit more would have done so much to heighten the sense of truly scary.

Way back in 1973, William Friedkin pushed things to an uncomfortable extreme with Linda Blair in The Exorcist, with scenes that still make audiences squirm in their seats. If you’re going to make a movie in which the tagline tells you that if you believe in God, you have to believe in the Devil, you by golly better make your Devil scary as, well, hell — and too often Stamm pulls back when it feels like he should have forged ahead.

Maybe this was the result of studio cuts rather than directorial decisions over which he had direct control, but in either case there were times when I felt cheated out of my fear being pushed to the point that I wanted to look away, which is what I want in a horror film. Also, that image on the movie posters you see outside your multiplex with a demonic-looking girl crawling spider-like at the ceiling? That does not happen — at least not quite that way — in the movie, which I feel is a bit of a marketing cheat. If you’re going to market your movie as “Hey! We’ve got some extreme demonic possession going on here!” then don’t wuss out in the final product.

In spite of that pull-back I still found The Last Exorcism to be a pretty fun and enjoyable (and yes, at times even scary) ride and I was really with what was going on until the last 10 minutes or so of the film, when the whole thing just goes to hell in a handbasket, and not in a good way. Admittedly, my own reaction to the ending partly stems from me wanting the script to stay with the Man of God Who’s Lost His Faith vibe, ala The Exorcist, instead of taking the abrupt left turn at Mildly Stupid that it does, but it is what it is.

I’m not going to spoil for you exactly how the ending pretty much ruins everything that came before it, but really, you’re better off just walking out of the theater before it gets to that point and imagining a much more satisfying ending for yourself than what the film delivers. You won’t do that, I know, but trust me, after you sit through the end you’ll wish, like me, that you had, and you will be mentally shaking your fist at the filmmaker for those last 10 minutes. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Nonetheless, in spite of these flaws I have to recommend The Last Exorcist, and give it a positive review overall, because the rest of the film really is very well done, and the acting, as aforesaid, so strong, that I feel compelled to do so. There are things about the film that are very smart, references to both The Exorcist and, I think, to one of my favorite horror films ever, The Changeling, and even what seems to be a bit of an homage to Poltergeist too, in one of the characters. There’s also some Rosemary’s Baby mixed in there, and no doubt other horror references that people more well-versed in the genre than myself have noticed.

Ashley Bell‘s performance as Nell is pretty specatacular — she conveys trusting, confused innocence, all little-girl-lost one minute, and the next, she’s smiling slyly at the camera behind Cotton’s back with a knowing menace that will send a shiver up your spine. And Fabian as the preacher-with-a-crisis-of-faith is great too, so convincing with the cynical charm and aw-shucks about the shell game he believes he’s pulling on both his congregation and his exorcism clients, but eventually shaking in his loafers as he is forced to confront his own greatest fears.

The Last Exorcism isn’t quite the shocker that Blair Witch was, nor quite the surprising scary of a Paranormal Activity, but overall it does a good job for most of its running length of tapping into our own fears and sending shivers down our collective spine, and it certainly entertains for most of its running time. And in a summer of generally weak movies, that alone makes it worth catching … in spite of the wretched ending.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon