Patrick Fabian as Reverend Cotton Marcus and Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer in The Last Exorcism. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)
By Bernie Jablonski
(There are no spoilers here, so read on!)
I’m not sure, but I’m starting to think that the fake documentary genre is trapped in a corner. And I’m a big fan. I saw THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT on an autumn evening (alone), and when I got into my car in the Park Forest Theater parking lot, the rustling of leaves as I got in made me swing around and look. Yes, I did sleep with the lights on after PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. And yes, I’ll probably be there for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, but I am wondering where films with this type of story structure have to go. I say this after seeing THE LAST EXORCISM, a very good (but not totally perfect) example of the genre.
As with any faux documentary, the movie gives the impression of being made up of raw, unedited, “found” footage. It uses all the ammunition in the genre’s arsenal (hand-held camera, long takes) to tell the story of Cotton Marcus (whose name evokes the notorious 17th Century Puritan minister Cotton Mather), a fervent minister who admits that the rite of exorcism is a scam, but puts on a big show performing the ritual as he “deems necessary.” In a somewhat brusque but very enthused manner, he talks to a documentary filmmaker about his rise as preacher, starting as part of a father-and-son “act,’ and gradually attaining his own ministry. He talks about the tricks of the trade for rousing up a crowd (the banana bread scene is impressive), and soon announces to the interviewer (and us) that he is going to a pick at random a letter from a pile of letters written by people requesting an exorcism, and the letter picked is from the father of a young woman, apparently possessed, near Baton Rouge.
As the minister, Patrick Fabian exudes the same charm covering up lies that he does playing a politician on BIG LOVE, and even though we see him as slick and committed to his chicanery, there is something of a glimmer of concern for others, which comes into play as the plot develops. This also, of course, prevents the audience from out-and-out hating his character. We also see interviews with his kids and his wife (Shanna Marcus), who in the sincere love and admiration of her husband that she expresses, is either in on his game or is totally deluded by him. After we see scenes of this fraud’s loving family life, he gets into his car to embark on the journey to Louisiana, with the camera being sure to capture him nonchalantly slap a “Jesus fish” sticker on the back of his car.
(It’s interesting to note that, as usual for the genre, the characters have the same first names of the actors who play them, with the exceptions of Fabian as Rev. Marcus, and Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer, the possessed girl. And if the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, Iris Bahr, who plays the filmmaker, was a sergeant in the Israeli military.)
As they are looking for the isolated farmhouse (what other kid is there?), they are accosted by a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) who in grand horror movie fashion, tells them in a friendly way to turn around and go back where they came from. Ignoring this advice (and the rocks Caleb throws at the car) the crew does find the farm and meet the father (Louis Herthum) and his daughter Nell, the seemingly innocent young girl who is not quite right. Marcus treats the woman as a doctor would, giving advice to the father in a trained, professional manner, while scenes are intercut where Marcus reveals the tricks that he uses in faking an exorcism, like a crucifix that emits chemical smoke when the Devil gets really close. Things seem to go well- Nell’s demons are cast out. And from this point, gentle viewer, you’re on your own.
The movie is gripping, at first with the scenes revealing a seamy segment of life we may know nothing about, and then with events following the initial exorcism. All the proper fears are exploited- the most powerful fear, fear of the unknown, prickles us and downright terrifies us (yes, I jumped, or cried out-several times) as we are left unsupported in a creaky old farmhouse surrounded by a vast dark universe, or opening a door leading into places unknown, or being forced into a spot where the claustrophobia we denied having kicks in. We see symbols we don’t understand (remember the stick figures in BLAIR WITCH?) and the not-knowing in a place where we desperately need information terrifies us.
The acting is convincing across the board. Fabian holds the movie together, with Bahr giving firm support as the producer/filmmaker, dropping that role when she has to turn problem-solver to try to resolve the situation that develops. Louis, the farmer, and his family are not presented as uneducated, grass-chewing country stereotypes, and although she doesn’t erase any memories of Linda Blair from THE EXPRICIST, Bell does handle well the transition from a pleasant young woman to someone who loses control of herself.
The problems I have with the movie can probably be better described as quibbles. The first deals with the editing. If this is supposed to be footage that was discovered after the events had transpired, why are they edited as if the cameraman shot separate reaction shots during these frightening occurrences? More egregious to me is the use of a music score during the movie. To me, when I hear music underscoring a scene that is unscripted and not supposed to be cast with actors, I immediately think of how they do that on “reality” shows, to increase the tension, and that kills it for me.
Even though the ending provides the type of shock that marks the faux documentary genre, for me I was a bit disappointed because it reminded me more of the endings of low-budget 1970s horror movies (good ones, not THE THING WITH TWO HEADS or THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION) rather than the creepy ambiguity of the endings of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. And yes, if the protagonists are getting information the same moment we are, why does it take them so long to figure out what’s going on at the end?
Don’t get me wrong- if you want suspense and some good scares, this is the movie for you. It works as a horror movie, and it works as a fake documentary, and after you see it, you might think that I’m some kind of nit-picker. It’s just that to me the genre is already starting to show its age. What else can you do with a drama that is supposed to be pretending to be a real-life presentation, when drama itself is pretending to be a real-life presentation anyway? Maybe the great examples of the genre (BLAIR WITCH, PARANORMAL, for some this movie, and for others THE LAST BROADCAST, which I haven’t seen) have already been made.
If that’s the case, either the faux-documentary-horror-film needs to accept its laurels, take a bow and fade out, or find some truly unique spin to put on itself. The horror genre has often fallen victim to its own limitations, but maybe it can take some clues from the faux-documentary comedy, which has given us classics like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN and THIS IS SPINAL TAP.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Film Study and Mass Media at Marian Catholic High School.