The Last Exorcism

When I saw the preview for this one, I thought it was another instalment in the hopelessly retreaded Exorcist series. Everybody knows the first film with Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow as possibly the most scary horror film of all time. The sequels have progressively destroyed the credibility of the premise to the point that no one else has dared go near it for fear of being infected by the terminal crapness.

Not so with this one. Eli Roth is producer, so you can be assured that if nothing else, it’s going to test your gag reflex. I read a few reviews whose only criticism was that the film stuck to the traditional model of a young person becoming possessed by an evil spirit and a priest fighting for her soul. “What – a film about a kid who is possessed by the devil which precipitates an exorcism by a priest?” Can’t get enough of it, I say.

The film starts full of promise. It has a great documentary feel and all the performances, particularly the actor who plays the priest/preacher Cotton Marcus, are sensational. See, broadcast-quality video held an enormous promise; now that technology was so cheap and the tools of film production could be made easily accessible to anyone with ambition, we would discover a plethora of great directorial talents. This is what technology should do in the ideal word; it liberates talents from the constraints of finance and exponentially expands the form.

Not only is the hand-held style elegantly portrayed, but you get that low-budget verite which is built into this kind of medium. The scripting is excellent also; the structure, dialogue and premise are artfully deployed in a series of talking-head interviews with Marcus, his wife and young son. Basically, the pretext goes like this; Cotton Marcus is an evangelical preacher who has become disillusioned with his ministry, which is based on theatre and fraud. He aims to expose the hypocrisy of the whole thing by taking a film crew with him to cover his last exorcism, to be performed on a young woman, Nell Sweetzer, living on her family’s farm in rural Louisiana.

Marcus performs his sham exorcism as a kind of panacea for the Sweetzer family, who has recently been aggrieved by the death of their mother. Afterwards, Marcus and his crew retire to a motel in the nearby town and are awoken in the dead of night by a catatonic, sleepwalking Nell, who is still clearly possessed by something. The story continues to twist and the essential tension between doubt and faith in Cotton Marcus stretches tight, creating an internecine web of poetics that resonate ever more sharply as the film continues. A second exorcism transpires in the Sweetzer barn, a surprisingly sinister location, and the devil calls the Reverend Cotton Marcus out. And then, the most amazing thing happens.

In the space of approximately ten minutes, the central mystery of the story is revealed; the filmmaker, Daniel Stamm, really wants to remake The Blair Witch Project. The ending of the film is so stultifyingly shit-house I really couldn’t believe it. The amount of talent in that first 90%, the attention to the finest detail bespeaks some serious intellectual horsepower. How could Stamm have fucked it up at the very last post, especially given how the second exorcism in the barn sets us up for a huge climax? And what the hell was Eli Roth thinking, as the producer? It’s not like this is an average film with a cheesy ending; this is an exceptional film which builds beautifully and then turns the corner into a brick wall. And of course, you the viewer is the one who ends up with the headache.

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