Caleb Landry Jones
John Wright Jr.
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The Last Exorcism (2010)
4th Jan 11
Evangelical preacher reassesses crisis of faith after his faux exorcism goes tits up.
There has been a bit of a resurgence in exorcism movies over the past few years, from Scott Derrickson's decent The Haunting of Emily Rose to Hans-Christian Schmid's brilliant and realistic Requiem, so if you're a hardcore fan of Friedkin's The Exorcist, there has been plenty of demonic offspring to compare and contrast to in recent times. But you generally can't better the originals, right? Right.
Thankfully, Daniel Stamm's (A Necessary Death) mockumentary The Last Exorcism falls into the same category as the movies above, and is a brilliantly conceived entry in the possession movie subgenre. A two person camera crew follow evangelical Louisiana preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) in his day-to-day spreading of the good word in a small baton Rouge church. Although claiming to be an exorcist, Rev Marcus recognises modern day exorcisms to be a sham, just a way of making money. Who would have thought that evangelical preachers in the US would be interested in something as earthly as the mighty dollar?! In essence, he's a confident, charismatic, yet troubled man, in that he wants to expose modern day exorcism for the fake it really is, hence the film crew.
When he receives a letter from a troubled father who suspects his daughter is possessed and murdering his livestock, Marcus embarks on yet another faux-holy mission, armed with some tricks of the trade and his exposé camera crew. The girl, Nell, is 16 years old, kept at home and taken out of the school system by her hardline religious widower father and a personality disordered younger brother, Caleb. Enough to give anyone problems, then, but is she possessed? Rev Marcus performs his sensational ritual, and all seems well until he leaves the family home to find a nearby random motel where he can rest before the drive home. That night, the supposedly exorcised Nell appears in his motel room, looking somewhat...possessed. Things generally go tits up from this point forward.
My main problem with The Last Exorcism centres around the plausibility factor of a camera crew filming the diabolical happenings without completely flipping out and running for miles. Don't get me wrong, these people get the impression they just might be in some kind of danger (especially when they see Nell's drawings showing them being decapitated), and they voice concern about staying there, but come on, Nell is obviously possessed by the nastiest demon of all, and they still decide to stay put and film everything. I know this is nothing new, ever since Blair Witch (or even Cannibal Holocaust!) these mockumentary makers have been sticking around way past their 'leave by' date and generally get their comeuppance. Looks like they'll never learn, these people.
Lack of plausibility aside, this is a realistic possession movie. It's what the filmmakers have set out to do, and have achieved it nicely. A big component of why it works is on the strength of its brilliantly solid cast - Patrick Fabian excels as the slightly dodgy Rev Cotton Marcus, a man on born into the evangelical game without much in the way of choice for his future. He's a troubled figure here, a man on an entirely different kind of mission than before, and director Daniel Stamm makes sure to imbue the story with substantial background on the main protagonist before it goes all vomitus on us. Ashley Bell also shines as the mysterious Nell, a role that demands some real conviction and sympathy. Her transformation from her first scene to what eventually becomes is a transition she appears to have little trouble with, like Linda Blair's Regan, she is just a sweet kid, inconvenienced temporarily by a demon from hell. Fans of The Exorcist will no doubt delight in spotting tasteful (and mostly subtle) nods to Friedkin's seminal 1973 film; at one point in the screening I attended, you could hear a communal, hushed "shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit" during a pivotal scene in the middle, and yours truly is still puzzled as to how the cast and crew managed to achieve such genuinely disturbing contortion of the human body. Put it like this: it’s a little more impressive than a shaking bed.
The location of Louisiana is a masterstroke, too, and given the large proportion of the running time set indoors, it's amazing that the location is almost a character in itself. Rev Marcus' eerie drive to the Sweetzer home comes with his own commentary on just why this is such a strange part of the world. You won't catch me moving there soon, that's for sure.
So, kudos then to Stamm and his crew for delivering a successfully entertaining - and more importantly scary - possession movie for 2010. Unusually for such a serious and dark theme, it wasn’t afraid of delivering a few sprinkles of humour along the way, though this is destined not to sit well with all audiences, much like the potentially controversial ending. However, it's a fresh approach for this sub-genre which, despite concerns mentioned above, works well otherwise. By no means perfect, it remains compulsive viewing from start to finish.
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