The pitch is sound: 1973’s The Exorcist, but found footage. A hundred movie producers could have, and probably did, come up with the idea while taking a shower one day. And the execution by producer Eli Roth and director Daniel Stamm is not exactly bad. It’s just very predictable and unremarkable, with a few pleasing blasts of freakiness. And then, finally, it is very, very stupid, but I’ll save the ending spoilers for a bit later in the review.
The film is presented as a documentary about Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a pastor from Baton Rouge who has renounced his exorcism practice because he believes it’s a scam and a mechanism to torture people with mental health problems. This sets up the promise that the movie will toy with the blurriness between psychosis and possession to religious folk, and, on a very shallow level, the movie does this. It teases a few ways that Nell (Lake Bell) might in fact be displaying extreme but natural psychological reactions to trauma: grief from her mother’s death or social isolation, perhaps. In the movie’s second half, Cotton and his filmmaking team — who all become on-screen characters — investigate whether Nell has undergone worse abuse that could be triggering her behavior.
And yet it doesn’t really explore the idea of fanatical demon posession as a manifestation of mental health problems in any meaningful way. Part of the problem is that The Last Exorcism is what it says on the tin — it is a found footage horror movie. It is not a dark drama or an art film. There will be no thoughtful ambiguity. We know from the poster and the logline that there will be demonic possession and jump scares. Even if it were committed to something more ambitious and honest than your typical horror fare — again, see Eli Roth’s credit and know this is not the case — it would have to do more to plumb the depths of the psychological impact of trauma than have characters repeatedly stammer “I tell you, there’s no demon in her, because demons aren’t real — it must be something from her real life!” The Last Exorcism goes no further than that.
Nonetheless, The Last Exorcism is moderately effective in the fundamentals of found footage scares. The big question mark in the production is just what exactly this footage is supposed to be — at times, it seems to be a raw continuous stream, totally verite, like someone took the recording tape straight out of the camera. At others, it seems to be a fully-edited documentary with some post-production, and there’s not especially coherent reason it flows from one of these formats to the other.
Anyways, I was about to praise the overall craft of the film: It does the basic found footage trick of making you feel like you are in the movie, which does lead to some tension, though just in spurts and fizzles. Nothing like the constant, inescapable descent to hell witnessed in the ur found footage text Blair Witch.
The performances are overall pretty good. The two cornerstones are Fabian is solid as the skeptical preacher grappling with whether demonism could in fact be real (an inverted crisis of faith). Bell effectively inhabits the two poles needed for the scenario: essence of innocence vs. essence of evil. I’m sure a couple of the scenes with Bell’s body contorting had the aid of special effects, but regardless, there’s a physicality to her Satanic convulsions that is eye-popping and almost almost body horror.
And then there’s the ending. Boy, what a howler. Spoiler warning ahead. It turns out the local minister (Tony Bentley), who had vowed that he’d had no part in Nell’s recent life, is… actually the leader of a secret demon cult that murders everyone! They have the Eyes Wide Shut red cape and pentagrams and everything! And Nell’s grumpy brother, who had been lurking defensively on the edges of the plot, is part of the demon cult, too. It’s a cartoonish ending, completely idiotic and laughable, and it zaps whatever suspense might be building in the final scene.
The ending torpedoes the lingering good will I had for the movie, which is perfectly watchable and even a little bit immersive up until that final scene.
(Note: This is tangentially a part of my Damien Chazelle retrospective, as he wrote the sequel.)
- Review Project: Damien Chazelle Retrospective