Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Last Exorcism - The Last Example of Video Vérité, I Hope

As video vérité in the guise of a documentary, I found The Last Exorcism rather engaging for half of its length. I enjoyed the performance of Patrick Fabian as evangelical minister Cotton Marcus – especially when he turns and winks at the camera to reveal the sham of his ministry and the fake exorcism he performs for a wad of cash. As Cotton repeatedly draws attention to the camera through which we are supposedly seeing this story, the Blair Witch Project nature of this film works.

But when the film draws attention to this genre as pure artifice by including the non-diegetic musical score Film Doctor notes in his review, and rooms are perfectly lit for a spooky movie, the whole approach seems unnecessary and merely an attempt to piggy-back on the success of Paranormal Activity, as well as The Fourth Kind, which I found vastly superior to PA.

Yet this musical score comes before the film genuinely establishes a creepy Louisiana backwoods atmosphere complete with simple-minded, rock-chucking brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and an equally creepy performance by Ashley Bell as Nell, the weirdly innocent, isolated, home-schooled girl who creates paper-cutout pictures of fictional Biblical-like scenes and displays them on her bedroom wall. In her girly dress, naive to the point of near imbecility, Nell shows a fascination for the sound boom operator's cool boots in one of the most unsettling moments in the film.

But after a literal U-turn in which Cotton heads back to the farm, a ridiculous climactic scene echoes Rosemary’s Baby and every schlocky horror movie about Satanic rites in the woods, and the video vérité approach again is pointless. Here, the film seems to want to beef up the special effects and the breadth of the action and be like any horror film with a standard point of view. Indeed, The Last Exorcism might have been better off this way. When it abandons some nice subtlety achieved by Ashley Bell’s performance and some effectively lit shots in the barn, outside in front of the house, and in the girl’s bedroom, it felt like the video camera approach was constraining the film’s urge to abandon subtlety and get down and demonic.

As Film Doctor also noted, the movie tries to incorporate heady questions about faith and religion. Says Cotton in the beginning, "In order to believe in God, you have to believe in demons." Well, you know, I kind of believe that because the Catholic grade school I attended piled on the Satanic lore along with the Jesus stories and a whole cataloguing of a vast array of sins and rather graphic descriptions of where you would go if you died in a state of sin. Much like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, I do, I do, I do believe in devils. At least, I’m not going to declare one dark night that I don’t.

Thus, I found that old demon encyclopedia Cotton totes around rather fascinating. It got me wondering who thought up all that demon mythology. Medieval scribes assigned to scare peasants into allegiance to the Catholic Church? What a sick imagination! I've had enough childhood exposure to demonology to be scared by the movie's subtle bits - like Nell huddled on top of her wardrobe - and I like how the story seems to be leaving us with mysteries, one involving incest, before the fateful U-turn. No need for the documentary artifice, no need for the Satanic rites around the bonfire - just a need for consistently artistic atmosphere and intelligently subtle suspense. Show more creativity. The Medieval scribes did.


The Film Doctor said...

I agree that the film is much more engaging initially. Cotton seems conceived in the tradition of the classic American con man, and I like the way he self-consciously wear a linen suit to look the part of a backwoods minister. Insofar as The Last Exorcism is about its own fakery, it works, but once the "real" intrudes with the voice of the demon saying "I hear that you don't believe in me," then the film appears to get confused, or it just sells out on its own premise. Cotton does a lot of yo-yoing back and forth to the farm, and things get mighty repetitive as they get more derivative.

The film does have a nice system of allusions, however. Imagine if Polanski had directed it.

Richard Bellamy said...

"Imagine if Polanski had directed it." I'm with you there. The girl. The blood. The hint of incest. That's why I felt it needed a more standard POV approach with some artistic lighting and cinematography. I think the character of Cotton invests the film with a lot of potential that falls flat in the second half.