@ the Movies/ The Last Exorcism

Controversial director's documentary approach on a fatigued story proves a vast improvement from its slick, polished counterparts


IN 1980 Italian director Ruggero Deodato introduced moviegoers to a new subgenre of exploitation cinema, in Cannibal Holocaust. Its touchy narrative tip-toed in the domain of snuff films, a scripted tale chronicled to come off as a documentary, a true story in other words.

It wasn't, of course, but nonetheless an intriguing discourse that was never really appreciated until 1999's The Blair Witch Project. Although the movie's directors--Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez--denied Deodato's pioneering effort had any influence on their now-iconic horror film, there's no ignoring its (or 1998's The Last Broadcast) similar plot structure.

Since then we've been exposed to a long line of compatible efforts, fooling (some) audiences into believing that what they are watching is "found footage" from amateur or documentary cameramen. From The Last Horror Movie (2003) and The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) to [REC] (2007), Cloverfield (2008), and last year's sleeper hit Paranormal Activity, this formula conjures up a new fear in movie patrons, one that is nourished by the films' sheer realism.

The latest project to join this list of mockumentary shockers is Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism, which was reportedly made for under $2 million. Stamm's last effort, A Necessary Death (2008), pursued an almost identical blueprint as his latest, veiling itself as a documentary that records the final days of a suicidal participant.

Co-produced by Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), The Last Exorcism disguises itself as a documentary, in which a two-person camera crew sets out to capture the cynical Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) on his mission to unmask the sham of exorcisms, a fraud he's been a part of since before his teens.

"Stamm's mainstream inauguration dusted off the old drawing board when it comes to Hollywood exorcisms, by taking the authentic route that seems to be the only method left that can still genuinely scare us."

Disillusioned by his own lifelong practices and the brutalism of do-it-yourself exorcisms, Cotton takes to the road to perform his final expose, which will--hypothetically--disprove the existence of these so-called demons that are possessing young children across the country. And in turn, possessing their parents to take matters into their own hands, at whatever cost to salvage their souls.

Cotton and his film crew (Adam Grimes and The Poughkeepsie Tapes' Iris Bahr) end up tracing a desperate plea for his expertise back to an isolated farm in rural Louisiana, owned by Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum). The farmer claims his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is haunted by a demon that is terrorizing his livestock.

Cotton, his faith buckled to the point of no return, agrees to perform an exorcism on the young girl, and pulls out all the bells & whistles you'd expect to see at a magic show. The reverend remains convinced that Louis is basing his instincts on spiritual paranoia, and that no such thing inhabits the soul of Nell. That is until he can no longer logically explain away unearthly incidents.

It's about halfway into the 99-minute movie when those previews we've been seeing on TV start to kick in. You know the ones, where 24-year-old Bell (playing a 16-year-old Nell) contorts her body like it's nobody's business. The eerie poses--all too familiar in these types of films as of late--are no theatrical trickery either.

"I've done a lot of ballet my whole life and I've just naturally been really flexible," Bell said during a recent interview. "I'm double-jointed. It's a party trick."

Whatever the case, it was most likely this incentive that enticed moviegoers to check out The Last Exorcism. But the gimmick wore thin quickly, as the film relied more on scenes like a crying baby when there was no baby around, or cryptic voices from Nell's locked bedroom.

All the while maintaining that same aura as The Blair Witch or Paranormal. That was the film's best trick of all.

The movie continues with an excessive plot twist that leaves you--well, me--with an uneasy sense, but I'm not gonna spoil it for you and tell you what happens from here on in. That's what Wikipedia is for.

The final scene of this former Sundance selection is very reminiscent of The Blair Witch, bordering on rip-off territory. But it almost has to in order to explain its own structure. Remember, this has to seem like "found footage."

Worn imagery and Blair Witch parallels aside, Stamm's mainstream inauguration dusted off the old drawing board when it comes to Hollywood exorcisms, by taking the authentic route that seems to be the only method left that can still genuinely scare us. We're a skeptical bunch, immune to most of Tinsel Town's scare tactics, which could explain why Paranormal Activity earned nearly $200 million at the box office.

The Last Exorcism, which has already hauled in more than 20 times its budget, may not elicit that same candid fear that Paranormal did for me, but its intentions are at least respectable.

3 out of 5 stars

(The Last Exorcism is currently playing at 10 Edmonton and area theatres/ for showtimes click here.)

Below is the official trailer for Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism.

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