Judge Daryl Loomis had a demon inside him for almost two weeks before the demon got disgusted and left.
Believe in him.
Ordinarily, I wouldn't have been terribly interested in The Last Exorcism. While produced by a trusted horror name in Eli Roth (Hostel), I don't take a lot of stock in either the exorcism or found-footage subgenres. Finding the reality of demonic possession a laughable proposition tends to bleed over into my feelings about the fiction to the point that The Exorcist, the gold standard for the genre and a favorite of my youth, now looks overwrought and overrated to my adult eyes. The Last Exorcism looked like just another one to me, and then I saw the marketing scheme they devised (link below). Using the oft-maligned and wang-infested website, Chatroulette, they mislead scores of horny boys into watching a pretty girl flirt with them, only to have her turn into a demon in front of their eyes. Some of these morons seriously freaked out; I laughed and I laughed until I actually wanted to see what these guys had in store. With all my diminished expectations, I popped the Blu-ray disc into my player and found that it wasn't just a gimmick; there's a pretty good film in The Last Exorcism.
Facts of the Case
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian, Saved By the Bell: The College Years) has performed exorcisms on people since he was a child. Along the way, his belief in God has gone away, yet he continues extracting "demons" from true believers with full acknowledgement of the con. He now believes that he's doing damage, however, and wants to make things right. Hiring a camera crew to produce a documentary, he's going to perform one final service so he can expose himself and his scam. He selects an urgent appeal from Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) to come to his farm and save his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), who's bizarre and violent actions have convinced him of her possession. At first, Cotton and the crew see just a troubled and isolated young girl. But soon, events unfold that make them understand that for some things, whether demonic or earthly in nature, only the power of prayer can protect you.
The first thing I thought of when I saw the cover of the Blu-ray for The Last Exorcism, with the form of Ashley Bell bent backward at a horrifying angle, was how much CGI makes things easier for an exorcism movie. Then I come to find out that, no, this film had far too low a budget for such luxuries. The actress did it herself, revealing her contortionist abilities to the director the day before they shot the scene. Watching somebody pop themselves into disturbing positions doesn't necessarily make the film, but it's exactly that dedication of everyone in the film that makes this such an engaging horror film.
In spite of my expectations, The Last Exorcism is not actually a found-footage film, no matter the single camera approach to the direction. Instead, this is a fake documentary, and the distinction is important. The Blair Witch Project gives us the unedited final hours of three people's lives, but doesn't ever attempt to build a story or describe characters. A documentary, fake or not, needs to seem real, and that makes strong characters and story necessary. Director Daniel Stramm's only other feature film, A Necessary Death, is similar in concept, but that story of following a suicidal man in the days before his final act is inherently much more believable. To make that work for a horror film, Stramm had his work cut out for him. His solution? He held off on admitting that it was a horror film for as long as he could.
The first sign of trouble shows up after only a few minutes, but even then, it's a short beat that doesn't amount to much. At most, it's a brief reminder that this is indeed a horror picture, because until then, there's absolutely no sign that this isn't anything but what it purports to be: a portrait of a con artist exposing his scam to the public. Aside from the vaguely familiar face of Patrick Fabian, there is little here that indicates that it's more than a documentary. Of course, we know what we're getting into, so the facade can only last so long, but while they pretend, it's a convincing display. Nearly all of this comes out of the engaging performances, starting with Fabian, but quickly showing up similarly in Bell, Herthum, and the rest of the cast. My biggest complaint about modern horror (and producer Roth, much as I like his films, is egregious in this regard) is the reprehensible, unlikable characters. Nobody in this film is without flaws, but they all have kernels of goodness inside. Cotton is a great character. He's a total sham, but he's charismatic, funny, and thoroughly likeable. Louis, for all his anger and righteousness, loves Nell deeply and, misguided as his approach may be, everything he does is for love of his daughter. Nell is bright and sunny, but becomes an absolute monster at the drop of a hat. Of course, we also have the contortions, which are pretty great. In a low budget film full of quality performances, hers rises to the very top. Ashley Bell is someone to watch for and her work here is reason enough to see the film.
As the continuing champions of current independent horror, Lions Gate has released a stacked Blu-ray for The Last Exorcism. While I have no use for three copies of the film, they provide the Blu-ray disc, an SD disc, and a code to download a digital copy from Itunes. That the DVD has only the film, with none of the extras, it's especially useless. At least I can compare the two transfers, though, so that's something. In standard definition, the film looks good, but the Blu-ray is a big upgrade. The film looks very sharp, with perfect clarity and gorgeous colors. Flesh tones look perfect and black levels are quite deep. This is a low budget film and no visual extravaganza, but it performs as well as I could hope. The sound is a step up from the image, with a DTS 7.1 Master Audio mix that does more than most of its kind. As normal for these extra two speakers, they are mostly used to double up the surround channels. In this case, however, they seem to be leveled a little differently, giving a little more texture than we normally find. It's a punchy mix, with clear dialog and solid spatial effects. Overall, a very nice mix.
The Blu-ray disc contains an exhaustive array of supplements. Some are good and some are downright ridiculous, but there's as much here as anyone could possibly want to know about the film. Three full commentaries start us off. The two production commentaries, first with the producers and next with the director and stars, are both strong, amiable looks at a film everybody is fairly proud of. They run down every aspect of the production, from the inception of the project to the nuances of the characters and the subtle things that foreshadow coming events. Both of these are well worth the listen, but the third is useful only for a few derisive laughs or for those believers in physical demonic possession. Featuring a so-called spiritual warfare counselor, an actual psychologist, and a "real" victim of haunting, they parse out what is supposedly true or false in the film. Without going into much detail, these people are reprehensible, but not for their belief in what they've seen. It's the specific things that they say, such as denying the damaging effects of sexual abuse of boys and expressing shock that rich people could be possessed. It's disgusting, and we unfortunately have to deal with them again, albeit briefly. They reappear in a short featurette on the victim's haunting, but decline to go into specific details for viewers' protection. Whatever they say, but for some added armor against the forces of evil, they also recommend reciting a protection prayer that has been provided. I did not, but I'm okay so far. A making-of featurette recycles a lot of the same information as the commentaries, but is still pretty good. The best feature is the collection of audition footage, with Ashley Bell's remarkably frightening performance, just like in the film, coming to the forefront. A solid disc and an easy recommendation for fans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The ending of The Last Exorcism has caused a lot of mixed feelings, myself included. Some think it's a deal breaker and, while I do not, it does leave us with two legitimate problems. First, just what the heck happened. The film takes a very sharp turn with less than ten minutes left and, while they did take a brief moment to set it up earlier, it still is pretty hard to accept. Second, and more importantly is that this "documentary" is an edited, scored, completely finished product. Given the events of the final moments, who actually finished it? In one of the commentaries, a plausible and satisfying answer is given to this question, but they shouldn't have to spell it out for their audience, and so probably weren't quite clear enough in their presentation.
Despite my reservations, I couldn't help but be charmed by The Last Exorcism. The high quality of performance makes up for most of the pitfalls in the plot. The ending will rub some people the wrong way, but even if it's not entirely consistent with the rest of the film, I doubt you'll see it coming.
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