The Last Exorcism
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Review in Short: “Meh.”
Review, the Lengthier Version:
The thing about a lot of the horror movies I’ve seen/am excited to see is this: I’m never the one who initiates the watching of either the film or the film’s trailers. I don’t go out into the blinding internet world, with its never-ending cascade of animated banners and links to IMDB pages to actually view the damn things. Trailers exist, for me, only before a movie begins.
This is a problem for a lot of people, because they are then limited in their viewing to whatever trailer they caught or stumbling around poorly-lit, too loud video stores. This is not the case for me.
That is because I have Brando.
Brando, being the one person I generally never fail to see on a day to day basis, has a pretty absurd sway over my film-watching. This, of course, is because the dude never turns off. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, and when something gets under his skin it gets under all the rest of our skins.
It’s like being best friends with the Billboard Charts. Or, y’know, a flesh eating bacteria.
I really had no interest in seeing The Last Exorcism; indeed, I had no idea what the premise was other than it had the word ‘Exorcism’ in its title, and that ensured me to a couple hours of someone screaming, writhing, and possibly desecrating various godly relics that I have long since ceased attributing any power.
But, given that once, over a year ago, there was a somewhat interesting marketing campaign for the thing, Brando had stored it up in his Super-Brain, added it to his Queue, and awaited it. I had long since ceased to think about the thing until today, when he said, “Let’s watch this tonight.”
So we did.
And I can say this: Meh.
The film starts with mild promise. A young minister expresses, to a documentary crew, his growing lack of faith. He shows his stagey showmanship, explains that he can really get people excited over something as simple as banana bread so long as he’s got them with the whole Jesus thing. He’s got magic-tricks, film aspirations. He’s not being earnest, in short, and we’re not sure whether or not we like him. This is never really answered–do we like him?
He explains that he’s, many times, performed exorcism. ‘Cause, y’know, why the hell wouldn’t you? In his mind, it’s just a bit of showy therapy—expensive, magic-laden therapy, but therapy none-the-less. But he saw a newspaper article about how some kid having an autistic fit was killed because the god-fearing parents tried to exorcise his autism out, and so he decided to debunk the whole practice: he doesn’t want to see other kids to die because people are stuck in the middle-ages.
Alright. Seems like an elaborate set-up about a topic we didn’t know was plaguing the world, but, okay, for the sake of the film, I’ll go with it.
He drives South with his documentary crew of Camera-Man and Sound Girl, and they go to meet the Sweetzers, who are experiencing terrible things with their livestock. Turns out, Daddy Sweetzer thinks Daughter Sweetzer is possessed by a demon and she’s hacking up animals.
Nell Sweetzer is a sweet young lady, and we feel for her—the film has a nice balance of showing us other possibilities to why she would be having psychotic breaks—sleepwalking, waking up screaming, being covered in blood from dead livestock, et cetra: her mother has recently died. On top of that, her father is a slight alcoholic (we hear but never see), and he’s become paranoid about the outside world—he’s taken his children out of school and church and begun to home school them. She lives in a sheltered, restrictive world and she’s besieged by guilt.
Our Minister, Cotton, does a little impromptu physical with the girl, tricks everyone by making water her feet is in boil with some crazy water-boil tablet from his pocket, and proceeds to define the demon to her father. He tells him about how terrible this demon in his old book is, feeding his fears, and then he puts on a show of an exorcism for the Sweetzers: he shows us the tricks he uses to do so—mild electric current to make the girl spasm, hidden speakers for evil noises, a cartridge-loaded crucifix to smoke upon the final banishment of the demon, bing bang boom, exorcised. He receives his payment, gives a fake word of God to the father so he’ll stop drinking so damn much, and then he and the crew go to the motel.
Okay, fair enough, fraud does fraud things.
Then shit gets real. Nell shows up at the motel in the middle of the night, mildly catatonic.
This is where the film gets into the horror, and it goes well—we’re led through a pretty creepy but not all-out rude ride of being freaked out and thinking that maybe, just maybe, she is pretty damn possessed by evil. Our Docu-Crew uncovers new things (was she sexually assaulted? Is that why this is happening) to keep us on the fence of whether or not we’re actually in supernatural territory. The documentary style of the film works for it, and we see our protagonists fumble about, trying to figure out the best way they help poor Nell and set the world straight.
Through the entire thing, we’re not sure what the hell is going on. We cannot commit to demons and we can’t commit to psychotic break, and so we’re left unable to predict where the film is going; that inability makes each scene just tense enough, and the performances become awash in complete suspension of disbelief; we forget that these are just actors for brief but much-needed stretches. Nell’s possible possession is expressed in such human, unspectacular ways that we totally believe it—there is no Regan-esque head spins, no crab-walking, and so our preconceived concepts of possession are laid to the side as we watch this poor girl in agony.
This goes so well that, as we feel the film enter its final stages, as we feel conclusion coming and ready ourselves for that last big shock, we feel that we will be adequately rewarded for our time, predictable or not.
This is not the case.
The final portion of the film makes the entirety of what preceded it bogus. It is almost dishonest how the film concludes with such a definitive and hokey way. It seems that, in a film that seemed sturdy with characters who have achieved human nature and with a pretty decent pre-shock conclusion (or set up for a better ending, certainly), suddenly the narrative and characters are washed out, flooded with mistakes, in just ten minutes; characters who seemed real become two-dimensional with just the nature of where they took the story.
Without revealing anything, I’ll give you this: it degrades into a terrible, under-budgeted and over-stretched cliché-fest.
In the last ten minutes.
That’s a lot of work to destroy for that final shock that we desire in a horror movie.