The Last Exorcism—produced by Eli Roth (not written or directed; those credits go to Daniel Stamm, then Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, respectively), although Roth no doubt offered input—is one the latest examples of the “faux-documentary style” horror flick. And despite my misgivings while waiting on the popcorn line, I ended up liking it, though not as much as the original, iconic The Exorcist or the more recent The Exorcism of Emily Rose, two films to which The Last Exorcism will inevitably be compared.
What I liked about The Last Exorcism was that it utilized the fake documentary style to great effect, and, as has been written all over the Internet, it does indeed have a clever twist ending. Though not as shocking as the ring-rolling ending of the Sixth Sense, which is the classic twist-ending film, or The Others or Jacob’s Ladder, the Last Exorcism’s ending was definitely a bombshell in its own right. It left me reflecting on the film long after I left the theater, usually a positive sign. Only really good films or really crappy ones have the ability to linger in one’s mind well after the credits roll.
I’m apparently not the only one who enjoyed the film. The low-budget horror movie has pulled in upwards of $33 million at the U.S. box office last I checked, a significant take for a movie with no stars, though stars seem to count for less when it comes to the horror genre.
Fake documentary films are scripted, to what degree I don’t know. Their power resides in their ability, if done properly, to make the horror more real by blurring the traditional line between viewer and film. What we are watching is actually happening, we think, while we are there, in the room. A long list of horror films has used this convention: The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, The Fourth Kind, and I am sure I am missing several.
There has been no shortage of exorcism films to hack through either. Every few years one seems to pop up since little Regan singlehandedly almost put the canned pea-soup business out of business. Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, noted for his stylized 1960s and 1970s horror films, even took a crack at it with Lisa and the Devil, which starred Kojack himself, Telly Savalas. Lisa is not one of the better examples of the exorcism genre, though it could have been a good horror film if left alone. As the IMDB.com relates, “Surprisingly there was no luck in getting a distributor for the film, even after successful screenings at film festivals. Ultimately in a desperate attempt to get the film into theaters it was heavily re-edited with newly shot footage involving a priest and a possessed Lisa. It was sold under the new title House of Exorcism in an attempt to cash in on the success of The Exorcist (1973). Bava’s original film, Lisa and the Devil, wouldn’t be seen for nearly a decade.”
Onward to the Last Exorcism, which concerns one Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who was trained in childhood by his Reverend father to one day take up the family business, which consists mostly of preaching, but also includes added-value profit centers, like exorcism and faith healing. Once upon a time Cotton was a true believer, it seems, but somewhere along the line, he appears to have lost his faith—maybe not in God but in the fee-driven part of the religion business.
Determined to expose exorcism as pure hokum—though it is believed by some even in the real world to work via the power of suggestion—Cotton invites a documentary crew to trail him as he gets ready to perform what he describes as his last exorcism; it indeed will be his last one, though not in the way he thinks. He discovers the particular case by answering a piece of mail at random. Or was it? He and his film crew travel out to a desolate farm that reminds one of Truman Capote In-Cold-Blood land, though this farm is down south. But geography doesn’t really seem to matter.
The supposedly possessed victim is the young and innocent and not-very-sincere-sounding-even-when-she’s-upbeat Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), who lives on the farm with her father and brother. (Why is it always young women who get possessed?) Even before the exorcism and the first possible signs of demonic possession, when Cotton is going through the early motions, there are clear indications that something is wrong in that house. We are pushed into the theory that it is incest. Nell, who we discover is with child, lives virtually cut off, trapped in her domineering father’s world, who is even homeschooling her. She has a brother, but he does not seem to be much help to her despite things he says supposedly to protect her—in fact he’s weird enough to be a candidate for possession himself. Our first meeting with him provides one of the more memorable early scenes in the film.
So no more Sunday school for Nell, as the odd little Reverend explains to Cotton once Cotton has launched an investigation into exactly what is going on with the girl. Nell was popular among the townspeople, and they all miss her. Nothing strange about that, is there?
Though saccharine sweet on camera—so much so, I was wondering if Nell (not Ashley) could be acting for Cotton; a performance within a performance, so to speak. But Nell is troubled and off-screen supposedly slashes her own brother with a razor blade deeply enough to require a hospital stay that coincidentally ends in time for his return in the last act. Why she slices him isn’t explained, though there are different interpretations at the ending.
The father, played with a startling stoic realism by Louis Herthum, raises the stakes and keeps Cotton on his toes by quite clearly conveying that he will blow his daughter’s head off with a shotgun if she is not successfully exorcised. But surprise, surprise, Cotton’s exorcism works—after a few tries, of course—and all is well once again. Or is it?
While heading home, Cotton and his film crew stop off at the diner where the supposed father of Nell’s baby works as a waiter. The conversation that ensues among the group comes to a baffling conclusion: The waiter is gay and swears he is not the father of Nell’s child.
So who is? Her father? The town Reverend? The brother? The Devil? Herein lies the strength of the horror of the film, in my opinion. Every little string isn’t neatly tied into a nice little bow. Indeed we are left with an existential mess. Nothing is explained to us. Was Nell a willing participant in the goings-on at the film’s climax (where apparently all the special effects money was blown), the events that make up the twist? Was she truly possessed? How much did her father know? Apparently enough to try to protect her by sheltering her up in the house. That much is clear.
But who did what? Why did those flames rise so high? Why did certain individuals receive gory deaths as preordained in crayon drawings made by Nell—perhaps while in a demonic state? The title is the Last Exorcism, but I must say, this film has a bit more in common with two other Satanic horror films: Rosemary’s Baby and Race With The Devil.
What those films offer that the Exorcist doesn’t is the fact that, ultimately, this is not a battle between Cotton and a possessed girl; it is about Cotton fighting evil, and evil is rarely limited to the form of one being.
If only it were.