Monday, October 29, 2012

30 Days of Fright - 28: The Last Exorcism

There are supposedly several professions that, due to the nature of the work involved or the typical lifestyles of the people who do those jobs, are forced to pay more for insurance than other professions. So, fighter pilots tend to pay more than horologists (for those of you who are right now asking themselves "what's a horologist?" it's a watchmaker, get a fucking education!) as they are perhaps more likely to speed when driving; lawyers pay more than carpenters as they tend to be pissheads; and dentists pay more then everyone else as dentists tend to be more suicidal. What I find surprising about the whole insurance thing when it comes to jobs is that cameramen can get insured at all, considering how many of them get into trouble when making shows for the History Channel or Discovery Science.

Presented as a documentary, The Last Exorcism (2010) follows Reverend Cotton Marcus as he works with a film crew to expose one of the nasty swindles being perpetrated by various churches in the deep south of the United States. Marcus himself is a preacher and exorcist but has always known that the exorcism business was a con. His conscience got the better of him one day after he read an article about a child suffering from autism who had died while undergoing an exorcism and so he decided to expose the fraud of that practice through the medium of film.

As a well known exorcist (with a website) Marcus often gets requests for assistance from those who believe a family member has been possessed. He takes a random request and decides to follow up on it, with the film crew in tow.

Travelling to a very rural part of Louisiana, Rev. Marcus meets widowed farmer Louis Sweetzer whose daughter Nell has allegedly been bothering some of the animals at night (by "bothering" what I mean is she's been going out and slaughtering them in the most horrific manner possible and leaving their guts spread about the place) while supposedly possessed by some demon. Nell is a strange child and incredibly naive for a girl of sixteen, almost certainly as a result of her father's insistence that she be home-schooled and not venture too far from the farm since the death of her mother.

Using his arsenal of gadgets and tricks Marcus goes through the motions of the exorcism, claiming that Nell had been possessed by a nasty demon that was having it's wicked way with her. With the exorcism over and Sweetzer happy, Marcus takes his fee and heads to a motel for the evening. That night he is shocked to find Nell in his motel room in some distress. He and the camera crew take her to the hospital but nothing is found to be wrong with her.

Marcus pays a visit to the church where the Sweetzers used to go and meets with Pastor Manley in an effort to find out more about the family and what might really be going on with them, though as the Sweetzers haven't been in contact with the church for some years, Manley can tell him very little.

Once Nell gets home she attacks her brother with a knife forcing her Dad to take him to the hospital. Marcus and the crew stay with her at the farm in order to have a bit of a poke around, just as a very disturbed Nell turns extremely violent towards them...

Rev. Marcus gets his new bed delivered and finds that it came with a free girl - hallelujah!

The Last Exorcism is a found footage film, though this time the footage wasn't from some teenagers camcorder but an actual documentary was supposedly being produced. The film that you watch is the footage edited together into the beginnings of that documentary. The thing is, the early part of the film has a proper documentary feel to it with people's names flashed up on screen as they first appear, but as the film goes along, the documentary feeling is lost and what you're left with is more like found footage, in that it's as if it came straight out of the camera.

I give the film makers credit for going down the documentary route in the way they did, as Rev. Marcus motivations for getting involved are believable and the visual style of the first half of The Last Exorcism is very much like something you'd see on the Discovery Channel, but the second act, where all the juicy stuff is, goes off the rails a little in order to justify that juicy stuff getting onto the screen.

The premise of the story is an enticing hook, getting into how a disillusioned clergyman wants to expose the fraud he has been a part of for so many years. Once Rev. Marcus explains his position on exorcisms and how they're all nonsense used to defraud the gullible, from the start you know without a shadow of a doubt that, in this movie anyway, exorcisms are absolutely necessary and something terrible is going to happen.

Rev. Marcus's journey through the film is better then most of the characters in a film like this. He's initially presented as a hero, someone exposing the way some religious types take advantage of their congregations - keep an eye out for the scene where he preaches the recipe for banana bread and gets an "Amen" on cue anyway. How he is perceived changes though when he performs the "exorcism" and reveals all the tricks of the trade. This puts him in a different light and he's shown for the con-man he really is. The father who asked for Marcus's help, Louis Sweetzer, becomes the sympathetic character as he's a true believer who's being taken advantage of. What makes matters much worse is that there is obviously something wrong with Nell Sweetzer and Marcus' cavalier attitude to what he's doing at this point is endangering her. As the final act approaches Marcus moves back into the hero role as he finally shows genuine concern for Nell and, through his acts and deeds, behaves like the man of God he's always claimed to be.

For a change, some thought seems to have genuinely gone into how to motivate the main character to do what he does. In so many films you find yourself wondering why the hell the protagonist is getting up to the things they do while in The Last Exorcism it's Rev. Marcus' concern for the girl Nell that prompts him to stick around long after most people (social services included) would have said "fuck it" and gone home. 

As a character study of Rev. Marcus, The Last Exorcism works well, but the other main character, Nell is a different matter. As the shut-in sixteen year old girl with some serious baggage, the way she is portrayed is hard to watch and while the questions of mental illness that surround her make her a character you want to feel sorry for, for some reason you just don't. I'm not sure if the performance from Ashley Bell or if the direction or writing is at fault, but I didn't care for or about her.

The deep south setting for The Last Exorcism is excellent, with the mix of rural isolation, heat, and strong religion all adding to the atmosphere. The ending is brilliant but if anything it maybe too subtle and it plays out a little too quickly so if you blink you could miss it, making it worth while to take a second look at the last ten minutes or so.

The Last Exorcism is a decent film but is hampered by the found footage style chosen for it and as a regular movie it could have been great. As it is, The Last Exorcism is good, just not good enough.

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down for The Last Exorcism.

The Links Exorcism:
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