In anticipation of the upcoming 2015 Toronto Hot Docs International Festival of Documentary Cinema, herewith is a review of one of my favourite horror mock-docs.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
dir. Daniel Stamm
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones and Tony Bentley
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I suppose we have to thank The Blair Witch Project for all the mock-doc shaky-cam thrillers of the past 15 years. I don't even like it much. The movie had a vague visceral effectiveness upon a first viewing, but the real test for all these pictures is how they hold up on repeated viewings. Blair Witch doesn't hold up to that kind of scrutiny at all.
Much like other one-trick-pony efforts such as Christopher "One Idea" Nolan's Memento or the reprehensible pile of filth Man Bites Dog, the aforementioned titles live and then die a miserable death because so much of them rest on the shoulders of their gimmick. In fact, a much better film in this genre, might well be the patriarch of them all, Jim McBride's utterly haunting and creepy David Holzman's Diary which, after over forty years still has the power to blow an audience away as it has way more going for it than its conceit (though its central figure is indeed the walking, talking embodiment of conceit).
My personal favourites of the recent forays into this form of telling creepy stories are Bobcat Goldthwait's magnificent Bigfoot chiller Willow Creek and Oren Peli's stunning Paranormal Activity. Both pictures are rooted in humanity against extraordinary backdrops and bear up under repeated scrutiny.
And now we have, from producer Eli (The Bear Jew) Roth, a very effective horror picture directed by Daniel Stamm which, presents its nerve jangling tale of demonic possession with a reasonable degree of intelligence and style. It's also held up nicely to repeated viewings.
The Last Exorcism is an apparent documentary about preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), famous and popular man o' God who began his career (much like the real-life Marjoe Gortner) as a child evangelist and worked his way up to being a lower drawer Jimmy Swaggart. Cotton supplements his earnings as an exorcist, which is where he's really made his mark, but recent events have tested his faith and he invites documentary filmmaker Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) to enter his life - warts and all.
Cotton receives numerous requests to perform exorcisms, but his belief in their effectiveness has more to do with the healing powers he wields through his performance. He goes so far as to rig the exorcisms with simple, but really compelling special effects. He randomly picks an exorcism request off a pile of letters on his desk and off the crew goes to watch him do his stuff. His hope is to expose himself, to expose all exorcists, to expose his own lack of faith. He doesn't believe in the devil and he doesn't believe the exorcism has any special Heavenly significance. He believes in his skill to heal, but due to some recent tragedies where other holy men have committed exorcisms that have traumatized the "possessed" - so much so that they have actually died - he hopes to expose the absurdity and inherent danger in such practices, especially by those not as skilled as he.
He soon enters the world of the Louisiana backwoods Sweetzer family who have been plagued with livestock mutilations and very odd behaviour from 16-year-old Nell (Ashley Bell). Cotton is convinced the problem is psychological and he exorcises, with the help of his bag of tricks, the demon from the girl's soul.
Sooner than you can say "The power of Christ compels thee!" it becomes obvious that there's more to the girl than meets the eye. She's obviously suffered a severe trauma - possibly sexual abuse or... she really is possessed by a demon.
Horror ensues. And a lot of the horror in the picture is extremely effective - lots of creepy crawly stuff and numerous all-out shit-your-pants pyrotechnics. Most impressively, these are bereft of CGI and delivered by the actors.
Ashley Bell is especially astounding in a performance that is highly physical. The gymnastics of self mutilation are rendered by Ms. Bell and Ms. Bell alone. She's not only brilliant physically, but she plumbs the depths of an incredibly tortured young woman with the sort of skill that signals a great talent to keep an eye on.
Equally impressive in the acting sweepstakes is Patrick Fabian as Cotton. Bringing the right balance of showmanship, charm and sleaziness to the table and as the film progresses, a very strong sense in the character's rekindling of faith, Fabian makes us believe as readily as he makes his "patients" believe. It's to the film's credit that faith still plays an important role in the story. While critical of organized religion, it follows the intricacies of Cotton's own spiritual struggles and ultimately, places stock in this, or if you will, his belief in God.
One of the more astounding elements is that the picture not only features lots of magnificent exorcism, but in what must be a first, we also get some mega-devil-worship dolloped lovingly into the mix. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I don't recall seeing anything (or at least anything good) where we are plunged into a movie about exorcism that then pulls the delicious, tantalizing card of devil worship.
I love devil worship.
And let me guarantee you, The Last Exorcism features devil worship so profoundly disturbing that it rivals some of my favourite devil worship sequences in such classics of the genre as Hammer's The Devil Rides Out, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, and Race With The Devil.
This is one of those movies where horror aficionados can do the math on all the expertly handled moments of major-league delivery and determine the picture's ultimate worth - especiallywhen the picture is good even beyond the math.
So here's the tally: Mutilation (of animals and humans), provocative sexual overtones, lots of "in-the-name-of-Jesus" prayers and Latin incantation. One can never get enough of that. And last, but not least, one of the most harrowing devil worship sequences replete with a bloody, goo dripping deformed demon baby with blood gushing geyser-like from the nether regions of the woman trussed to the unholy altar of Satan.
Seriously. What's not to like?
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ 3-and-a-half Stars
The Last Exorcism is available on DVD and BluRay via E-One.