Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Last Exorcism

I am usually careful not to spoil films when I review them, but in this review I am going to spoil The Last Exorcism (and, to some extent, Rec and The Prestige) in order to explain what spoiled The Last Exorcism for me.

It's a film I've been looking forward to for months, largely because of its association with Eli Roth, whose Hostel movies I love (and am planning to explain why in a forthcoming post on here). Discovering that Roth only produced The Last Exorcism rather than directing it dampened my enthusiasm slightly, but he's been promoting it relentlessly on twitter and elsewhere, and the trailers and reviews I'd come across looked very promising.

One of the things I really like about all of Eli Roth's films so far (that is, Cabin Fever and the two parts of Hostel) is the lack of any supernatural element to the horror. I don't mind good supernatural horror - I quite enjoyed Paranormal Activity, for instance - but it doesn't give me the delicious squirmy fear that a good naturalist or realist horror does. So obviously, with The Last Exorcism, I was anxious that it treat its subject matter with the appropriate skepticism and that the horror derive from the very real insanity, fear and violence of pseudo-possession and exorcisms.

And, for the vast majority of the film, that's exactly what it does. It's shot in the handheld mock-doc style of Rec and The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Of those films it's closest conceptually to Rec, an excellent Spanish horror based around 'found footage' from the cameras of a TV documentary crew following firefighters who get inadvertantly quarantined in an old building with a secret. In The Last Exorcism, a two-person camera crew is following Cotton Marcus out to his last exorcism. Marcus is a charismatic evangelical preacher who retains a fondness for his flock despite having gradually lost his faith. He has performed many 'exorcisms' in the past, ridding people of their demons with the help of gadgets and legerdemain. Now he's going to demonstrate how this trickery is achieved by taking on one last case: Nell, a teenage girl from a strict religious background whose family are all dealing with various issues following the loss of their matriarch two years earlier.

As is necessary in order for the movie to work, the characters are all well-played and believable. More could have been made of Nell's brother - it's unclear why he is initially very resistant to the exorcism but mollified when he discovers it's all a fake, and exploring this further would have been interesting. But that observation demonstrates the depth of the characters in this film, especially when compared to a horror film as laughably characterless as The Collector. For the majority of its running time, The Last Exorcism's only weak point is that it regularly betrays its mock-doc premise by adding non-diegetic scare music and offering shots of some scenes from more than one angle. But, though noticeable, these errors of judgement do not spoil the film.

What spoils the film is the ending. It really is a shame because the action is well-paced, the scares are properly creepy and the story is engaging. Marcus investigates the family's extranuclear relationships and discovers there are mysteries other than those of the girl's "possession". And by 80 or so minutes into the film, the mystery appears to have been solved, the girl "exorcised" and the documentary finished.

And then, on their way out of town, a new clue which overturns Marcus' previous explanations surfaces and the crew turns back. And they find that in fact she really was possessed and the locals are forcing her to undergo a medieval ritual involving fire, flesh and chanting. And it's rubbish, and it turns what could have been a really good horror movie into a flop. I hated the ending for the same reason I hated the ending of The Prestige: both films lead you to believe that these characters inhabit the real world, and then suddenly pull the rug from under you and yell Ah! It was magic, after all! Well, that's  not an explanation. And these are terrible ways to end otherwise fine films. The Last Exorcism ought to have taken a leaf from the book of Rec: supernatural scares can work if introduced late into a film. But they need to be sufficiently ambiguous to be consistent with what came before. Otherwise you just end up wishing, as I did after watching The Last Exorcism, that they'd deleted the the last 10 minutes or so. Had it finished as the crew left town the first time, the film would have been whole, consistent, tight, and much much better than it actually was.

It's this lost potential that makes The Last Exorcism such a waste of a strong story and some great footage. But I know many reviewers have lamented the ending despite otherwise enjoying it, and hopefully the filmmakers will learn from this and go on to create something that fulfils the potential that The Last Exorcism had.


  1. I know I go against the grain a bit here but I'm a fan of horror films that introduce demons and the Devil and other things from Christian mythology. I think it's because of a fear of the Devil from my childhood, when I was rerally scared of him.

    One of the most frightening dreams I had as a child was one where I found a photo of the Devil in a book in my attic, and there was a "Devil worship" (actually an occult) shop near where I grew up in Leeds called the Sorcerer's Apprentice, it had no windows and was on a dinghy side street, all very innocent but my friend's joker of a dad used to make up terrifying stories about it (along with one similar to that in Candyman where if you stared into a mirror for long enough by yourself your face would change into the Devil's). The nostalgic terror all this brings up runs much deeper than even that from Video Nasties.

    Anyway, even though I liked the ending, when Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm spoke at Frightfest they said there is ambiguity in it and it can actually be seen as a bunch of fundamentalist Christians luring a fraudster to his death through trickery. I didn't spot it at the time but will definitely watch it again to find out, I loved it anyway :)

  2. Thanks for your long comment! I realise others more tolerant of demons and spirits than I am wouldn't judge it as harshly - even though it's the inconsistency I hated more than the supernaturalism. I was curious about your views on the film so it's great to hear them.

    I also get the childhood scares that run deep. As a kid I was terrified, after reading the Roald Dahl book Henry Sugar, of walking past mirrors alone lest I see through my skin and notice an embolism making its way toward my chest. The fear lasted years!

    I have to say I don't buy Roth and Stamm's alternate interpretation though (much as I would have loved to have been at the Q&A!). It has a whiff of the post-hoc about it - they've obviously been criticised for it quite a bit - and, as I said on twitter, I think it relies too much on conspiracy (the teenage boy would have to be in on it) and contingency (how would they have known the crew would stop to question him?). It also seems unnecessary - if they're going to kill Marcus and crew, why not just do it in a straightforward manner? It's not as though they were heavily armed.

  3. OMG Henry Sugar! That was well scary!

    I think you might be right about them trying to come up with some rebuttal to criticisms afterwards, I'd like to watch it again and see if there are actually any clues there.

    But to answer a couple of points - the teenage boy might actually be key, I'd like to watch his part carefully again, it's quite complicated (has he set the whole thing up?); and they kill them in that way to make them believe in God and the Devil before they die!

    Not sure what you mean by the crew stopping to question him?

  4. Hm, yes, I think I need to see it again too! I did really enjoy the majority of it and would happily watch again. I had thought they popped into the place where the teenage boy (Logan, was it?) was working on their way out of town and he happened to be working? But may have misremembered.

    I see your point about the method of the murders. It still seems too small a reward to go to all the elaborate effort of setting that ceremony up, to me (and why have the father involved if that's the case?), but then the deranged mind of the religious lunatic doesn't necessarily follow exacting logic I suppose!

    Yes, definitely one to watch again!