THE LAST EXORCISM Review

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THE LAST EXORCISM Review
[With the film releasing tomorrow now's the time to revisit my review of The Last Exorcism.]

Do not hold the marketing campaign for Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism against it. It is not Stamm's fault that marketers opted to sell the picture as nothing more than a simple shock-a-minute scare fest and ignore the many other levels of what is at play here. And it is certainly not his fault that in the process of doing so they included shots - not necessarily the money shots, but still recognizable images - from the big moments of the film in the trailers, thereby hobbling their effectiveness in the film. It is a shame that the marketing for a film as subtle and nuanced as this has been treated in such a heavy handed way not because it is dishonest, per se - the film really does deliver a number of solid scares - but because it both creates a false expectation of what the film actually is as a whole while also undercutting the effectiveness of the very element that they are 'selling' to the paying public. I only hope that audiences are able to see past that potentially fatal error in judgment.

Much more revealing of what this film is actually about is its original - Cotton - the film having been initially named for its complex, conflicted and entirely compelling lead character, the Reverend Cotton Marcus. A traveling preacher of the deep south, charismatic variety, Cotton was groomed for the pulpit from childhood, his preacher father recognizing the value of a child minister as a gimmick to pack the crowds in. Cotton is a charming, intelligent man, one who took on the family mantle early and carried it well, preaching and performing exorcisms - a family sideline stretching back for generations - from childhood into his adult life. But now, decades into his life in the church, Cotton has realized that his faith is false and the practice of exorcism puts more people at risk than it actually helps - what help it offers being of the psychological variety, in his opinion - and so he has arranged to bring a documentary crew with his to what is meant to be his final exorcism to chronicle the extent of his own fraud and the misbehavior of others like him.

But what he finds is not exactly what he expects. Nell Sweetzer is a charming but deeply troubled girl, one squirreled away by her overprotective father after the death of her mother. They lived a quiet, tragic life until Nell began being plagued by late night black outs and sleep walking spells that ended with the teenaged girl gutting the family livestock with a kitchen knife. Believing her problem only psychological, Reverend Marcus puts on his normal show intending to later push the family to seek medical help only to have things go very wrong indeed when the girl appears, catatonic, standing over his hotel room bed late that night ...

Do not take the opening paragraph of this piece to mean that The Last Exorcism is not an effective, frightening horror film. It is. The scare sequences are well executed and very effective, the imagery striking home all the more because of the naturalistic manner in which it is shot. But, that said, it is very much a horror picture of the slow burn variety, not the smack-you-in-the-face series of jump scares that the trailers promise. If what you are looking for is the SCARIEST MOVIE EVER then you need to be aware that this is not the type of movie that Stamm and his crew have set out to make.

No, while the exorcism of the title may be the final major event of the film - the driving force of the plot - the actual core of the picture is Cotton Marcus himself, the troubled preacher being forced to come to terms with his own faith - or lack thereof - and the limitations of his own beliefs. And Marcus, frankly, is an absolutely fascinating character. Played by veteran TV support player by Patrick Fabian in what absolutely deserves to be a star-making performance, Cotton is a sort of sincere cynic, a man whose belief system has failed him entirely without robbing him of his morality. Though he is a fraud he is a fraud with a purpose and the journey this film takes him on is one of the most sincere and intelligent treatments of the tension between faith and reason put on the big screen in years, all of it being embodied by a performance that places Fabian into a school of character actors somewhere between Chris Cooper and Josh Brolin.

And Fabian's not the only actor doing stellar work here. The entire cast - particularly Ashley Bell as Nell, Caleb Landry Jones (soon to be seen as Banshee in X Men: First Class) as Nell's brother Caleb, and Louis Herthum as their father Louis - are stellar, with not a single wrong note struck in any of the performances. Stamm is clearly a stellar actors director and I would suggest that this is very likely the best performed film ever to adopt the moc-doc format.

Supporting those actors is the script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. Not content to play to the genre tropes and the bumps and crashes, the duo instead deliver a script that treats every one of the characters with respect, giving each and every one a distinct, wonderfully nuanced feel. You know these people from the first moment you meet them, even the minor characters, and that simply cannot happen without a combination of strong writing and strong performance.

On the directing front, Stamm's ability to handle actors and draw strong performances out of them has already been noted but it is also worth commenting on his ability to balance out the immediacy of the moc-doc format with a shooting and editing style that keeps the film feeling like cinema rather than just some kids messing around with a camera. The moc-doc style is often used as an excuse to pardon poor cinematography and choppy editing but neither accusation can be made here. This is a well made film on all fronts, one that takes full advantage of the moc-doc style to place the audience in the middle of the action without resorting to massive amounts of shaky cam and cheap shadow tricks.

On the negative side of the picture, there is an unfortunate double ending that plays less as a shocking reveal - again, because part of it is shown in the trailers - than like a bit of an anti-climax after the personal intimacy than has come before, a sequence enough at odds with the bulk of the film that I wonder how much of it has to do with the lengthy tweaking process the picture has been subjected to since being completed well over a year ago. It's not a horrible turn - and is absolutely a necessary one in terms of completing Cotton's character arc - but it could certainly have come together with a bit more oomph.

An intelligent, well executed film that treats both its characters and its audience with respect, The Last Exorcism has unfortunately been saddled with an ad campaign that does neither. See it anyway.

[The Last Exorcism screens tonight at 7 pm, with producer Eli Roth and stars Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell in attendance, as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Advance tickets are sold out but a small number of tickets will be made available at the door.]

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Daniel StammHuck BotkoAndrew GurlandPatrick FabianAshley BellIris BahrLouis HerthumDramaHorrorThriller

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Ard VijnAugust 16, 2010 11:17 AM

How much influence does a film's producer have on the marketing strategy? I other words: is the current mismarketing Eli's fault?

Todd BrownAugust 16, 2010 11:26 AM

Very little. Once a film is bought for distribution pretty much all of the marketing decisions are made by the distributor. The producers may be consulted but all the choices belong to the people actually putting it out. If anything Eli actually deserves to be congratulated for championing a relatively unknown film maker like Stamm and getting this film made.

robgstAugust 17, 2010 1:32 AM

Low expectations always help, but this movie was such a nice surprise!
Definately a slow-burner, but always engaging to watch.
Nice to finally see a serious horror movie at the fest this year.

Ard VijnAugust 17, 2010 8:32 AM

Thanks for the clarification Todd! And I wasn't trying to bash Eli Roth here. Frankly I don't understand why he has so many "haters" on the internet, I mean you might hate the "Hostel" films or the many clones they spawned, but Eli Roth himself seems like a pretty decent guy.

The reason I asked the question was that if he HAD been the guilty party here, it seemed like such an odd mistake from his side.

thisisnotanexitAugust 20, 2010 4:29 PM

I saw this last night and I feel completely cheated. I went into the movie having only seen half of the trailer, and having extremely low expectations.

Throughout the movie I kept thinking how I was completely wrong, and that it was a great film. They built up an emotional attachment to the characters, it was clever, it scared me in parts, everything was going fine.

Until the last 3-4 minutes of the film. I am intensely angry that the ending was so unbelievable to a film that had managed to break the standard exorcism movie archetype. I can't enjoy a film if I hate the ending so intensely. I wish I would have walked out of the movie when I originally thought it was ending, then I could say that I genuinely enjoyed it, but I feel like I was tricked into seeing a bad movie.

JMAugust 24, 2010 10:07 AM

Hello Todd,
Thanks for your review of "The Last Exorcism"

I was curious if you had seen “Chronicles of an Exorcism” that was released in 2008 ?
If so , just wanted to get you Opinion comparing and contrasting the two films.

http://pro.imdb.com/user/ur4076746/comments


Todd BrownAugust 24, 2010 10:38 PM

I haven't seen that one, no, so unfortunately I can't comment.

Major_RagerAugust 27, 2010 5:11 PM

I agree almost 100% with thisisnotanexit...

I saw this at FanTasia. After spending what felt like an hour in line, having my bags searched, my cell, iPod (not even one with a camera, FFS!), and camera taken away, and having been given basically a bribe of free movie passes if I would agree to say I liked the movie afterwards infront of cameras before the movie even started.... I was already in a little bit of a sour mood.

I would say that the first half of this film worked flawlessly. More than anything, it was really funny, and it's faux-doc style felt completely authentic. The lead they chose for this movie... spot on.

When the actual horror elements kick in, the movie plays to every exorcism and Blair Witch cliche in the book. And nothing about it is very scary at all. They couldn't have chosen a least frightening looking girl for the role of psychotic demon whore, either.

But don't just take my word for it.

Major_RagerAugust 27, 2010 5:14 PM

I also just want to add that the ending is SO similar to The Blair Witch Project, it's a little embarassing. Not only is it executed in the same rushed manner, it left viewers (well, me and my gf anyway) with the same unsatisfied feeling TBWP did, which i also thought could have been a decent movie if it hadn't been for it's terrible finale.

vaillancourt.benoitAugust 31, 2010 2:04 AM

While the ending leaves you with a big "WTF" hovering over your head, for me it didn't ruin an overall very good movie. It's definitely more intelligent and engaging than you would expect from the trailer, and though it wasn't as scary as I expected, I was pleasantly surprised. A must-see.

possesedMay 8, 2011 3:15 PM

Interesting review, couple good points. I really enjoyed the ending and thought that it helped bring the movie together, even though it did raise a few questions (like how did the tape get from the camera to the media?), but it was definitely an entertaining horror flick.

I gave the movie a B in my review for horror-movie.org, and I stand by the rating. You can read my review, if you're interested, at http://horror-movie.org/wp/2011/05/the-last-exorcism/