Saturday, August 08, 2020 15:12

The Last Exorcism (2010)

I’m by and large a fan of Eli Roth – I thought that Cabin Fever was good fun and that Hostel, despite fairly having its detractors, had some interesting ideas at its core. So it baffles me that Roth has attached his name to The Last Exorcism – a disappointing and patchy film which seems to presuppose that its audience members will be unfamiliar with the horror genre, or amnesiac to the point that they fail to notice the level of rehash it contains.

Firstly, I was a little disappointed to see that this is yet another ‘mockumentary’ style film. I think this format does still have potential, and I’ve seen it used very successfully in the past – but it has been overused in recent years. Certainly where a film looks to have enough of a budget to circumvent the shakycam, you have to wonder why the filmmakers opt for it. What it does here is remove the potential for a well-developed acting performance from the male lead, Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). This is a shame, as he does seem to have acting ability – but, rather than have his character and motivations unfold naturally, he just delivers a monologue to the camera explaining everything about himself. It would have been more stylish to let his religious doubts, his cynicism and his concerns manifest themselves in his behaviour, rather than have them spoon-fed to the audience. We get it – he’s an apostate.

Another point to make about the mockumentary format chosen here is that the majority of documentaries have higher production values than this. It’s not hard to get a decent boom mike and a tripod: why then would the entire thing be shot on a headache-inducing hand-held camera? The final product – The Last Exorcism itself – seems to have been edited, as straight-to-camera interviews are spliced with rolling footage, so why would any self-respecting editor leave in countless requests for the camera to be switched off? Again – we get it. It’s a documentary, and making this documentary is not universally popular.

An unfortunate side-effect of the camera flailing around like a dervish is that it’s hard to feel convinced by the plight of Nell (Ashley Bell), the girl at the centre of the story. We only see glimpses of her – as she moves from the stereotyped li’l Southern miss, saccharin and naive,  to glowering – and because of the fallible medium of ‘what the filmmaker decides to film’ it’s hard to get a real sense of the change in her. So, the film resorts to more jaded devices to demonstrate her terror: rapid unexpected (read: expected) dashes, and sudden screaming. To be fair, this is not the actress’s fault, but the fact that she is given basically two modes and limited means of expressing them does not engender suspense.

The above points are unfortunate but, had these issues still been combined with an intriguing take on its themes, the film might still have worked. Instead, The Last Exorcist gave me a severe case of déjà vu, being as it is one of the most derivative modern horror films I have seen. Of course, you can argue that there’s nothing new under the sun; most horror filmmakers will have seen a film at some point that at some level impacts upon their own work, whether they’re aware of it or not. You’re also bound to get films which are intended as homage, or even rather more straightforwardly recycle ideas. Whatever your feelings on The Blair Witch Project and the debt of honour it owed to Cannibal Holocaust, amongst other films, there’s no question that it was innovative, captured something of (and gave something to) the zeitgeist of its day, and spawned countless copies of its own. Through no fault of its own, The Blair Witch Project has bequeathed to us the genre of wobblevision and not only does The Last Exorcism add yet another film to that genre,  it borrows wholesale the entire premise of Blair Witch (right down to the closing shot), diluting it only with a dash of An American Haunting and taking its end message – that demons are real -  from The Exorcist (which resulted in a quick shot in the arm for Catholicism along the way).  If you want to see Satan on the silver screen, you’d get a more watchable version out of Race With The Devil!

The only explanation for these cynical, huge flaws has to be self-awareness. Is The Last Exorcism a knowing pastiche of the genre? I’m willing to believe it must be, but even if this is so, then this really isn’t a good enough use either of Roth’s abilities or those of the rest of the team.

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