Reality TV is hell: The Last Exorcism
Having missed it at FrightFest, where it was the closing film of the five-day festival, I took the opportunity while on holiday last week to see Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism.
Produced by Eli Roth - who also seems to have taken on a large chunk of the film’s PR, if the number of times he’s crossed my line of sight in the past month is anything to go by - this latest entry in the exorcism sub-genre was shot in a shakycam style, which cunningly draws comparisons away from the The Exorcist, the untoppable grandaddy, and towards recent first-person horrors such as REC and Diary Of The Dead.
The Last Exorcism’s story centres on a likable but troubled preacher called Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a man whose faith has been on the wane for some time - if it was ever there at all. Disgusted by reports of a boy being smothered to death during an exorcism, Marcus has decided to expose the mundane, conning secrets of the practice by hooking up with a small TV crew to make a documentary, so that, hopefully, people will be made aware that demonic possession is nothing more than a delusion.
Unfortunately, for Marcus at least, the subject he chooses to ‘exorcise’ is Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), a homely and naive 16-year-old girl who appears to be in possession of something far more supernatural and frightening than a clinical case of make-believe. Or perhaps the whole ‘slaughtering cattle in her sleep’ thing is just something to do with puberty, after all.
With its corner-of-your-eye visuals, restrained make-up and barely-there score, The Last Exorcism unnerves in a pleasingly low-key manner for much of its running time. Well-earned jumps - thankfully, there are no cats in cupboards here - nuzzle creepy images that later pop back into your head uninvited. And even when the story climaxes, it doesn’t feel like the film is showboating, the lack of whizz-bang effects grounding it and allowing the audience to wonder, alongside Preacher Marcus, just what it is they’re experiencing.
Performances range from solid to outstanding, with Ashley Bell undoubtedly the star of the show. Her sweet-natured, down-home charm is endearing; her demonic demeanour unnerving, whether she’s lashing out like a wild animal or crouched silently in the corner, staring down the camera lens - a moment that alone makes the film’s ‘documentary’ conceit worthwhile.
That said, as with many of cinema’s ‘handheld horrors’, it’s best not to examine the style of The Last Exorcism too closely. According to the fiction, only one camera was shooting, but the documentary is edited as if it was shot with multiple cameras: there are real-time reaction shots, cutaways and close-ups. And conversations are heard in crystal clarity, even when there are no microphones around.
I can forgive The Last Exorcism its cheats, though, because… well, the bottom line is that I really enjoyed it. Despite the film’s 15 certificate, it doesn’t come from a ‘teen horror’ mould: it burns slowly, avoids irony, and delivers moments that unsettle in a refreshingly old-school manner. Its shooting style could be a problem if you’re prone to motion sickness, as I am - though I’m happy to report that, having taken a Kwell 20 minutes before the screening, I personally had no problems at all with the film in this respect.
I’m grateful. Enacting my own pea-soup tribute to The Exorcist might have made it look like I was having a little too much fun.