Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Exorcist Through the Gift Shop

The Last Exorcism 2010 US
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Screening at UK cinemas now

Beware! Although the power of faith compelled me to keep this humble review spoiler free, I have been unsuccessful in casting out the demon spoilers that reside within it!

There’s a point somewhere about two thirds of the way through The Last Exorcism where you may well let out a weary sigh, throw your hands in the air and proclaim in a loud and ultimately unsettling voice, “Well why did they just give the ending away? Now we know what is going to happen for sure!”

Just so you know... I didn’t actually do that, I was just thinking it at the time and it turns out that it is actually the little key you need to fill in any blanks at the end of the film, should you feel the need to fill them.

Like the on screen spoiler mentioned above, there are a lot of little moments in The Last Exorcism where it kinda grates because the shots are pretty much telegraphing their outcome more often than not... a common weakness of a lot of contemporary horror movies and perhaps a common ailment of the genre as a whole because the “rules of the horror film” are so easy to decode and to play with that you can very quickly have broad variations on those ingredients, like the comedy/horror genre such as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein or An American Werewolf in London, while at the same time forget that these crossed or mutated genres are only valid because they are so easily deciphered and... therefore... care should be taken when going through a standard horror narrative to realise that everybody else will easily be able to guess what’s coming next too and that you should maybe try to limit that outcome.

That being said, The Last Exorcism is actually quite a slick piece of movie-making in some ways because even though, all the way through this little mini-masterpiece, you pretty much know what’s coming from shot to shot (no fake jumps followed immediately by a legitimate scare are going to fool you, right?), the film is so well handled that it still manages to scare you silly even when you know it’s going to happen.

The movie is one of the increasingly popular hand-held, shaky-cam, first person shooter kinds of film which were pioneered by movies like Cannibal Holocaust, popularised by films like The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project and which continue to be flourishing in our cinemas with the likes of Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and the [REC] series. The Last Exorcism successfully uses this format but, like George A. Romero’s stab at the genre in the fifth of his six zombie movies Diary of the Dead, the makers of this pseudo-documentary want to have their cake and eat it by including standard but effective spooky and unsettling music behind some of their sequences. Unlike Romero’s movie, however, the use of non-diegetic sound is not explained by any of the characters in the movie, while in the aforementioned zombie movie the narrator/editor of the film had her reasons for including a soundtrack in the final mix.

The Last Exorcism is the story of a lapsed/fake priest who has performed a number of fraudulent exorcisms, using cheap giftshop/novelty effects to give himself authenticity (there I fulfilled my obligation to my puntastic title by pushing a metaphor) and who is making a documentary showing what he really is before he retires and goes into some other line of business. Now you may think that the lead character is unlikable given this background but, truth be told, his motivations are not as one dimensional as that. Within the first quarter of an hour his reasons for originally questioning his spiritual belief are briefly mentioned and this, coupled with the fact that he is genuinely helping people who “believe themselves to be possessed by demons” by giving them a little fake but impressive showmanship (while admittedly taking their money) and giving them a tangible escape from their problems (in the form of an exorcism) which genuinely helps them, gives the character a little more sympathy than you’d first expect.

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen the movie but, I think the key point for me came after about a third of the way into the film when he finishes his first “exorcism” of the 14 year old girl, Nell, and is just about to leave the house when he has a “vision” from God with a message for the girl's father to unfree himself from the pain of the loss of his wife. This is not something our fake friend needed to do, he already had the money... this was him trying to help a person come to terms with his loss.

Similarly, when his director/sound lady and his unidentified cameraman (I think this is the only film I’ve seen of this kind where the cameraman actually manages to stay out of shot for the entire film... which is refreshing) are facing death with him and are urging him to cut his losses, run and go get help before it’s too late, he goes back to help out Nell in an attempt to grasp her from the clutches of evil. Something he does more than once and which will ultimately be his undoing.

One of the key things with this kind of movie making is, given the style of the camera work and the haphazard nature of the shots and the sound design (although as I mentioned earlier, this does have occasional soundtrack cues), all the emphasis is focussed on the performers. They are always under the spotlight in these kinds of ventures. No stylish camera moves or clever editing is really going to help them out from a tight or emotional situation... so you need to get really good performers. And I think the studios have also cottoned on to the fact that you need relatively unknown performers too in that you really don’t want a known star or personality bringing their own baggage/image from their previous movies with them. The illusion of documentary can’t be maintained so successfully if you have Angelina Jolie playing your sound girl!

And that’s exactly what you get with The Last Exorcism. Some pretty decent actors really throwing themselves into the roles and making everything just a little bit more believable. Added to this, the girl who plays Nell, Ashley Bell, is sinister enough and uses the ploy of looking directly into the camera (which in some ways feels like a direct threat because the cameraman has seen the fate she has predicted for him) and uses that in-your-face empathy hit to really unsettle you.

There’s a point near the end of the movie which is really neatly done and everything that has happened so far gets tidily explained as a psychological problem and our three main protagonists, including the cameraman, are riding off in to the sunset, so to speak. Then something happens to make them go back and all hell has broken loose again... and although you do know the ultimate fates of these characters before it happens, there is a little bit of a surprise within the last five minutes of the movie... because the film mutates just a little bit and goes from being a modern variation on Friedkin’s The Exorcist into the realm of the supernatural novels of Dennis Wheatley. The last five minutes is very The Devil Rides Out with a strong dash of To The Devil A Daughter thrown in for good measure. Nothing wrong there.

Unlike a fair number of other films of this nature, there is no explanatory wrap up in either the epilogue or the prologue to explain where or how the fictional footage was found and how it happens to be playing out before us now. I’m quite fine with that, art doesn’t always need to justify itself for the few people who are going to want that kind of detail explained to them and it’s good to see a film freeing itself from the shackles a little of some of the previous first-person-shooters.

A spooky and sometimes quite frightening film which is definitely worth a trip to the cinema to see... if only to listen to the reactions of the rest of the audience.


  1. Yes I agree with Nuts, a very well produced/directed horror film with very well preformed roles which I found refreshing to watch, though the ending is a tact on one as I felt the producers thought Oh well how do we end this and where did the son suddenly appear in the last reel, of course he was hiding in the outhouse!
    Maybe the Americans can create a good horror film these days, this is a very good start.


  2. I thought the ending was fairly strong and not as tacked on as you did but it's nice to see that we actually agree on something.