CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE LAST EXORCISM
by L.L. Soares and Nick Cato
(THE SCENE – A barn behind a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Inside the barn, a girl wearing a nightgown thrashes about on the ground. L.L. SOARES is doing his best to perform an exorcism)
LS: Come on, let her go, you silly demon. I’ll even take you out for a drink.
DEMON VOICE: I dunno. I like it in here.
(Suddenly, NICK CATO enters the barn)
LS: What are you doing here? I was waiting for Michael.
NC: He couldn’t make it. He asked me to come help you instead.
LS: What a wimp. I bet you he was too scared to show up. To look the devil right in the eye.
NC: MAN, is this collar tight -how do you guys wear these things?
LS: What? I didn’t even notice. I was too busy going toe-to-toe with Satan.
DEMON VOICE: Why are you guys always trying to ruin my fun?
NC: Oh crap! (Nick takes off his Catholic priest outfit and throws on a three-piece suit). I forgot someone finally decided to do this from a Protestant viewpoint! Now we’re REALLY gonna ruin your fun, you horny lil’ devil!
(The girl twists around at an impossible angle)
DEMON VOICE: You can’t catch me. Nyah nyah.
LS: Oh, playing hard to get are you? Well, while we wait for you to come to your senses, I’ll start this week’s review.
THE LAST EXORCISM is the latest in a long line of movies that basically grab the premise of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), and run in a different direction with it. Where BLAIR WITCH was about a witch in the woods, we also got PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2008) about ghosts or demons inhabiting a couple’s home, and bigger budget variations like CLOVERFIELD (2008), where 20-somethings videotaped a giant monster stomping through Manhattan and THE FOURTH KIND (2009), where aliens got the fake documentary treatment. This is becoming a genre all its own, The funny thing is, I’ve liked all of these movies to varying degrees. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Considering how many people have ripped off the concept, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was something of a milestone in horror cinema. Even if I did find the characters really annoying. The thing that I found interesting about THE LAST EXORCISM is that, for the most part, the characters were pretty good. If they weren’t all likeable, they were at least all interesting.
So the concept this time around is that Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian – and yes, the reference to the historical figure Cotton Mather – from the Salem witch trials – is hereby noted), a charismatic evangelical preacher, goes around performing exorcisms. The more we get to know Marcus, though, the most interesting he is. He has been a preacher – and a very successful one – since he was a child. But now, as an adult who has been doing this for a long time now – he feels that he is just going through the motions. Preaching is something he’s good at, and it pays the bills, but his heart just isn’t in it anymore. He’s a smart, likable character, and I took to him right away. Early on, the movie seems to be a documentary about Rev. Marcus. But then he starts to explain about the exorcism thing, and how exorcism is something that older generations of his family had done through the ages. He’s just carrying on the tradition. Except he doesn’t really believe in what he’s doing. He thinks that, by going through the motions of the ritual, he helps people with psychological problems – people who really believe they are possessed – get some closure and healing. In fact, he rigs a lot of the shaking beds and moving picture frames to go along with his performance. He’s almost a con-man of sorts, except he really does believe he’s doing a good thing—that just happens to pay well.
(GIRL begins to growl in DEMON’s voice)
LS: Excuse me, do you want something?
DEMON VOICE: I want a cheese sandwich.
LS: Well, wait a minute, will you. We’re doing a movie review.
So, for the sake of the documentary, Cotton picks a random letter from a pile (he gets them all the time) and decides to answer it. In so doing, he takes the film crew down to New Orleans to farm of the Sweetzer family.
The Sweetzers are god-fearing folks, and someone has been mutilating Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum)’s cattle. The mornings after an animal attack, Louis finds his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) covered in blood. But she has no recollection how the blood got there. Louis is convinced she is possessed by the devil, which is why he wrote to Cotton for help.
Cotton goes along with it and performs a ceremony to rid Nell of her demon. Except…well…things only get worse after he’s done.
NC: I was quite taken with the character of Cotton Marcus. I liked the angle this film took with him as an exorcist: here’s a man who knows how to go through the rituals as a vocation, but just doesn’t have a genuine conviction to be a member of the clergy, and even admits to not believing in demons. What made the character work was the great portrayal by Patrick Fabian, and what kept my interest throughout the entire running time were the fine performances by everyone involved. The producers get an “atta-boy” here for finding a spot-on, believable cast.
LS: Yeah, I liked this movie a lot, and a big part of it was the casting.
NC: Is there an echo in this barn? (Takes his tie off)
LS: As I said before, Patrick Fabian is terrific as Cotton Marcus. He’s a very familiar face —you’ll definitely wonder where you’ve seen him before—and the answer is he’s been on lots of TV shows. I figured I must have noticed him most from the shows VERONICA MARS and JOAN OF ARCADIA, where he had recurring roles. And this familiarity actually works in the movie’s favor. For me, it made me trust him sooner than I would have otherwise, and pulled me into the story right away. And even though his ethics are questionable, I found Cotton to be a very intriguing, charismatic character, and I willingly went along for the ride to see what he would do next.
Another terrific performance is given by Ashley Bell as Nell. At first she is very innocent and seems heart-breakingly genuine. And of course, as the possession storyline goes along, we see other sides to her. I thought Bell was convincing throughout and turned in a fine acting job.
NC: And she looked quite cool (for a possessed chick) in the red Doc Martins!
LS: Yes, she did.
(GIRL stands up and goes over to them as they talk. She looks at them quizzically)
DEMON VOICE: HEY, WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?? You’re supposed to be paying attention to me! I’m the demon here. Aren’t you going to try to force me to release this girl?
LS (pushes girl down on the ground): How rude! Can’t you see we’re discussing something here? Wait your turn.
As I was saying, the rest of the cast is very good as well, including Louis Herthum as Nell’s father, and Caleb Landry Jones as her brother Caleb, down to smaller roles like Cotton’s movie crew and the other denizens of the Louisiana town where the Sweetzers’ reside.
I thought the movie was very well directed by Daniel Stamm, and there were times when the suspense got pretty intense. For the most part I really enjoyed this movie, even if it did seem a little too close to the BLAIR WITCH mold at times. The only thing that didn’t really work for me was the “twist” ending. I think it took some of the suspense out of the movie and took things in a slightly silly direction, where, if they’d just kept going the way they were, things could have gotten more and more tension-filled.
NC: A lot of people are going to hate this ending, but what the Reverend does during it made the whole thing work for me (at least on a religious level).
LS: I also think that the PG-13 rating held things back a bit. When I think of an exorcism movie, I think of demons really pushing the boundaries. I think of defilement. I think of blasphemy, and those things are very limited when you impose a PG-13 rating on them. This movie could have been even more intense, and a lot scarier, if it had been allowed to push the envelope a bit more. As is, it’s very effective despite its limitations, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as scary as the king of all exorcism movies, THE EXORCIST (1973).
(Girl jumps up and down, yelling)
DEMON VOICE: What about ME? You’re here to confront me! I demand your undivided attention!
LS: Yeah, yeah. Wait til we’re done with the review, okay?
So, what did you think of it, Nick?
NC: For starters I think the PG-13 rating actually helped this one. By not showing much of what could have been shown (nudity, mutilated bodies), the director forces the viewer to come up with their own visions of what’s happening (which might be a task for younger viewers growing up in the age of CGI). And by not going over the top with the visuals, THE LAST EXORCISM rose above some of the more cheesy exorcism films such as THE TEMPTER (1974) and EXORCISMO (1975).
As a fan of religious horror, I was (again) surprised by how Reverend Marcus was handled. His journey from latent con-man to someone wanting to help others to genuine spiritual warrior sends an important message to those in the ministry who might be playing games with their “job.” While a bit BLAIR WITCH-ish, what becomes of the Reverend during the final minutes gripped me, and made me cheer inside. I was a bit surprised how many people left the theater complaining about the ending. Apparently the idea of redemption was too much of a stretch for them to grasp, or accept.
LS: I’m a big fan of exorcist movies as well, and while you’re right that there are a lot of cheesy ones, those are also—for the most part—a lot of fun. But you’re also right that this one plays it completely straight and does a very good job with the concept.
The reason why I didn’t like the ending was because I thought it strayed from the possession build-up we’d been experiencing the whole time and went in a different direction, which didn’t seem as powerful to me, and it defused a lot of the suspense that had been building for me. I wanted to see a big pay-off to the possession/exorcism struggle, and instead we get a narrative shift that didn’t completely work for me. Although, I must admit, the ending is foreshadowed in a very spooky scene long before it actually takes place.
NC: Another big plus here was how the possessed girl, Nell Sweetzer, kept me guessing: was she actually possessed, was she the victim of parental/religious abuse, or was it a combination of the two? This guessing is why the ending worked for me—you had no idea where they were going with it. It was refreshing to see a possessed, teenaged girl not remind me of Linda Blair’s classic role (although she does barf early on—and not in an over-the-top pea soup manner). I also got a real kick out of Pastor Manley, who leads the church the Sweetzer family used to attend. Toward the ending he reminded me a bit of Ernest Borgnine, something I’m pretty sure wasn’t accidental.
LS: I dunno, I really enjoyed it until the last ten minutes or so. And I didn’t even really hate the ending, I just think it could have been a lot scarier. So, at first, I was on the fence about how many knives to give it. But you’ve reminded me about a lot of the things I really liked about this movie.
NC: The shaky BLAIR WITCH camera thing was done pretty steady (until the final minutes), and I’m just going to have to accept this style of filmmaking is here to stay. THE LAST EXORCISM gets a solid three knives from me. It’s a fine blend of old-school occult horror and new-school filmmaking; it’s just about everything the way overrated THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) tried to be.
LS: Funny you should mention HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, because I saw several similarities between the two. Not that the movies are that much alike—stylistically, they’re polar opposites—but they deal with similar ideas. And I think that THE LAST EXORCISM is the superior movie in every way. Despite my reservations about the ending, I can’t just dismiss everything that led up to it, and frankly, the rest of the movie is top-notch. I guess I have to give it a solid three knives as well. Patrick Fabian alone earns it with his layered, strong performance.
(LS turns to face the GIRL, who is vomiting on the hay-strewn floor)
LS: Okay, we’re done. Now what did you want, you annoying demon?
DEMON VOICE: I can’t believe you two kept ignoring me! I can’t stand that! I’m going to go torment someone else.
(DEMON leaves GIRL’s body, leaving her sobbing on the barn floor)
LS: Well, it looks like another successful exorcism. That will be five hundred dollars.
(FARMER steps forward from the shadows)
FARMER: But I don’t have that much money.
LS: Well give me two hogs and a steer, then. It’s just about lunchtime.
NC (looks down at hog humping his leg): I don’t know about this hog, LL. I think the demon went into it. Either that or the thing hasn’t been laid in months (NC kicks the hog off his leg). Hey, what am I going to get?
LS: You know you should really talk to Michael Arruda about that, since you’re filling in for him.
NC: I won’t hold my breath.
(LS suddenly runs out of the building and disappears into the night)
© Copyright 2010 by L.L. Soares and Nick Cato
L.L. Soares gave THE LAST EXORCISM – 3 knives
Nick Cato gave THE LAST EXORCISM – 3 knives, too!