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Non-Review Review: The Last Exorcism

The fundamental problem with The Last Exorcism is that it tries to be too many things, while being unwilling to completely invest in any of them. Is it an exploration of the culture of “showy exorcisms” (where the preacher himself refers to it as “a sham”)? Is it a jerky, handheld homage to The Exorcism, filtered through Paranormal Activity? Is it an indictment of small insular communities and the sinister ideas which may underpin them, as in The Wicker Man? It seems to be all three at once, which is a problem, as the three don’t gel together too well in a two-hour film.

The movie certainly isn't a blessing...

There’s a lot of talking at the start of the film. On one hand, I appreciated the fact that the movie actually dared to explore the “behind the scenes” approach to exorcisms – looking at Preacher Cotton Marcus and his approach to spirituality as something of an agnostic exorcist. Here, the movie isn’t perfect (or even great), but it’s at least interesting – as it compares the magic he works on his congregation to literal magic, but also as it explores the somewhat seedier side of the whole “business” of exorcisms. One doubts that Father Merrin in the original exorcist would have counted up his payment in twenty dollar bills, nor that he would have used props to help his subjects “live” the experience.

However, these segments are undermined by the fact that it very clearly feels like set-up for the sake of set-up. When Cotton Marcus jokes about being able to preach about banana bread, it doesn’t feel organic – it just feels rude to mock his congregation like that. The candid way that he discusses his lost of faith and the financial aspect of what he does just doesn’t fit with a man trying to put on a happy face – one assumes his congregation would watch the documentary at one point – but instead seems like a spiritual conflict which will eventually play itself out in the third act.

The movie is staged as a documentary of “found footage”, like in Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project. However, it recalls these two films if they had been made by directors who weren’t convinced of their gimmick. For example, ambient soundtrack music plays over footage at several points, or the scenes somehow cut back and forth between two camera positions (most notably with several external set up shots that focus on a room in the house that the action then cuts to). It is as if the production team filmed it all as a low-key horror like Quarantine and then decided that it just didn’t work that way, so began to edit it as if it were any other film.

The film doesn't bend over backwards for its audience...

And then there’s the horror. The trailers sell the film as a horror film. I can imagine a few restless viewers during the first forty minutes of set-up – which, to be honest, was quite a bit fascinating in its own right. The footage of the old shanty towns around Louisiana, with decaying houses and rusty buses and green swampy fields adds an ethereal atmosphere to the surroundings that never really develops. Cotton himself offers an explanation of why this area is perfectly suited for this sort of tale – it’s a remote stretch land that has featured countless overlapping religious ideas in an environment which feels distinct to almost anywhere else in the United States, and has featured catastrophe after catastrophe.

However, I have to say, for a film called “The Last Exorcism”, I expected more exorcism horror. Instead what we get is a series of disjointed events and moments – some have a shock factor (a sudden movement or a character not where they’re supposed to be), while some attempt a more disturbing form of horror. I appreciate that the film is attempting to move away from the clichés of these sorts of “shakey camera” films by not having anyone jump out at the camera (or, at least, not as often), but it simply replaces them with casual horror clichés or – even more awkwardly – nothing. There are moments which are undoubtedly meant to serve as drama, exploring the grim underbelly of this sort of community, but they fall flat. Maybe because they’ve all been done so often before, or perhaps because they are just the familiar devices of other forms of horror storytelling.

The finale in particular is highly disappointing. I won’t spoil it here, but it feels like a very conscious attempt to echo a far more original and intelligent film – but rather than flowing logically from the story, it is thrown in for the sake of a twist. Sure, it’s hinted at over the course of the movie (and I spotted it by application of the law of conservation of detail), but it still feels like something that wasn’t included as a logical extension of the story, instead as a last minute twist and an easy way to resolve all the outstanding issues in a nice little bow.

It’s a shame, because there is potential here. Maybe if the film had the courage to be a drama rather than a horror and instead explored how Cotton influenced those people he encountered through his showmanship. Perhaps even a more direct straight-up “afraid of the dark” horror. Hell, even a thriller about the kinds of things that go on in communities like that would have worked. Instead, The Last Exorcism attempts to be all three, but never really adds up to a satisfying experience of itself.

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