Today’s film will be starting a little differently. As it is still playing in a lot of cinemas, I will be firing off the Spoiler Horn. So, here goes....
*SPOILER WARNING* This film is very, very recent and, in my talking about it, I will have to spoil some of it. So, do NOT complain if you read this and have the film spoiled for you. You have been warned – if you have ANY interest at all in seeing the film, do not read this entry. *SPOILER WARNING*
Today’s film to me, succeeds on multiple levels. As a “Found Footage Mockumentary”, as a character study, as an exorcism film; basically everything that it set out to do. And, while it hasn’t been in the top position of too many Best Of The Year lists, hit has found itself in at least a few top 10s. And, since I fired the Spoiler Warning Horn, I better tell you what it is: The Last Exorcism.
“Wait,” I hear you ask, “just what the hell is a found footage mockumentary?” Well, I found it to be pretty easy to figure out, but I have time, so I can explain to you. You all know what a documentary is, yeah? Well, a mockumentary is a documentary-style film about a fictional subject – most famously, the film This Is Spinal Tap is a mockumentary. In my experiences, mockumentaries are mostly done in the comedy or horror genres. Now, found footage is played up as being real, and for whatever reason, has been lost then later re-found and broadcast, a gimmick that is almost entirely used within the horror genre (because it turns out that the footage was lost because of Not Very Cheery Reasons) – The Blair Witch Project is probably the biggest example of a Found Footage Mockumentary. A really good mockumentary can make you believe that the subject in question may be real, which can really heighten the fear and tension, making for a very good film watching experience.
Another thing I really like about this style of storytelling, is the fact that the mockumentary will only focus on a handful (if that) of characters. This is a bit of a double edged sword, as it means that the actors that do get focused on really have to be at the top of their game – made even more “perilous” as a good mockumentary should NOT have anyone really known in the major roles. Nothing would kill the gimmick faster and harder more than seeing, for example, Dan Ackroyd pretending to become involved in a UFO attack (but, let’s face it, if that is what the gimmick of the film was, that would be awesome). Thankfully, this is a worry that most mockumentary creators (well, as far as those that I have seen) have taken account for and filled their ranks with mostly unknowns, that can all act reasonably well – thus making you believe that you are seeing actual footage.
And now that you know, we can get into the film proper (yeah, yeah –about bloody time, you pretentious git). The hero, or perhaps just central character, of The Last Exorcism is Cotton Marcus (a brilliant Patrick Fabian, who I should have recognised from Veronica Mars, but didn’t, such was the strength of his performance), a lifelong preacher who has long been subsidising his income by doing exorcisms. As we find out, though, due to various accidental/intentional deaths from other exorcisms around the world, he no longer believes in them, choosing to liken the service he provides by doing them as little more than “a doctor, curing a patient”. In fact, what is revealed as the film goes on is that Cotton has seemingly lost his faith in all things religious – it is never expressedly stated as such, however, the way he speaks on several topics gives the impression that he no longer believes in much of the trappings surrounding what he does.
As part of a documentary that is being filmed to expose exorcism as lies, Cotton agrees to take a film team with him on a random exorcism, answering a letter sent to him alerting him to the plight of Nell Sweetzer (a performance just as central, and thankfully just as good as Fabian’s, by relative film newcomer Ashley Bell) naturally, wanting her exorcised. Marcus and the documentary team head from Baton Rouge, to the farmhouse in Spookybackwoods, where they meet up with the Sweetzers; Louis, who is untrustworthy of the outside world following the death of his wife and, in fact, is anti-exorcism; Nell, who is all sweetness and innocence and fear at what is happening; and son Caleb, at first equally as untrustworthy and downright hateful towards the outsiders, but soon warms up when he sees just what a song and dance showman Rev. Cotton actually is.
And what a showman he is; as in one of my favourite scenes of the film, we see just what flim-flammery Cotton actually puts into the act of the exorcism – under the guise of “consecrating the room”, the reverend rigs a show worthy of an upscale heavy metal show; everything from wiring the bed to jump, to cleverly concealed speakers, to rings that emit slight electric shocks (thus making the “patient” jump around the bed). Before the show, so to speak, he picks out a demon to “exorcise” from Nell – Abalam, one of the lesser demons of Hell (possibly at random, it’s not established why, although, given that I found very little information about ‘him’ it could give him a wider imagination net to use in describing the demon). Following the show, Cotton and the documentary crew leave, thinking their job has concluded.
But no: later that night, Nell shows up at the hotel they are staying at and exhibits signs of “actual possession”, leading Cotton and the crew to admit Nell into hospital in the hopes of revealing her possession to be more psychological in nature, thus revealing it and the exorcism to be a sham. Following her release, they all find themselves back at the Sweetzer farm, where Nell shows many signs of not only being psychologically damaged but also, “actually possessed”. Later, it is revealed that Nell is pregnant, which she says is the child of Abalam. However, following a second (and less showy) exorcism, it is revealed to be the possible child of a local boy, with Nell admitting to having a complete breakdown and committing various “possessed” acts in her shame of the pregnancy.
Following an interview with the local boy, Logan, where he insinuates that he not only has had next to no contact with Nell, but is also gay; Cotton admits to himself that Nell could actually be possessed, and so returns once again to the farm house. On finding it empty, and painted up with pentagrams, the crew and Cotton head out to look for Nell. They soon find her as the central part of a demonic ritual populated with various members of the town, with her father also bound. In the process of trying to rescue the Sweetzers, the three wind up killed. Which is where the film ends.
As stated above, I felt the film succeeded on every level that it could be placed – as mockumentary, as character study (both Cotton and Nell) and as exorcism film. Yes, many people have poopooed the final 10 minutes of the film, but I found that it worked as a nod of the head to old school Satan/exorcism films, particularly those of the 70s and 80s. I could go on and on about how great the two main central performances were, but I have to give credit to the other major players (and most of the minor players too), with each putting forward very naturalist performances, regardless of emotion – like I said, being natural helps put over the “realness” of the film, to the point where, at times, I did lose myself in the moment.
Out of everything that I really liked about this film (and there is a lot of things I think have been really well done), there was one thing that did not sit well with me. On certain scenes, there is some very obvious non-diegetic music used. While it may not be a solid tenet of documentary film making, the use of non-diegetic sound, at least to me, is more a staple of non-documentary films; and those few uses did nothing but lessen the tension of the scenes they were used in. However, like I said, that was the only thing I could think of that I didn’t like, and even then, it’s only a minor quibble based on my personal beliefs of what a documentary should contain.
All in all, a bloody good film and one that is well worth your time.