Sep 9, 2010

Film review: The Last Exorcism

DIR: Daniel Stamm
CAST: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell,
Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum

I honestly can’t believe how badly THE LAST EXORCISM ends. For a good 75 of its scant 87 minutes it’s that rare thing; a genuinely interesting contemporary American horror film, it even ends in a perfectly satisfactory, if slightly anti-climactic, way. But when it ends that first time the movie fails to stop, and in doing so it takes a running jump off a cliff, and proceeds to spend the next ten minutes falling to a messy death. It’s a real shame, because there really is a great deal to like here, but those last ten minutes mean that I can’t recommend the film wholeheartedly.

The story is largely the same one that was told as far back as THE EXORCIST and has been revived recently in films like REQUIEM and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. Once again a young girl (Bell) from a religious family begins acting strangely, leading to the belief that she may be possessed, and the film follows the efforts of a priest (Fabian) to exorcise her. However, that premise is given a couple of neat twists here. First of all the priest is a fraud, a man who has lost much of his faith, and secondly he’s doing this one last exorcism in order to expose the industry for the fraud it is, and to demonstrate his point he’s allowed a documentary crew to follow him.

Given the pedigree of its producer Eli Roth (of the HOSTEL films), THE LAST EXORCISM is perhaps surprising in its subtlety. Up until it loses its marbles in the last ten minutes this is a film that deals not in gore but in restraint, in implication, and gets its creep factor more from what you don’t see or hear than from what you do. It’s grounded by two excellent central performances from Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell. Fabian is effective at drawing us into the faux documentary style of the film, giving a supremely natural performance as a ma whose whole life, it seems, is a performance of some sort (an early highlight comes when, to win a bet with the documentary crew, he inserts a recipe for banana bread into a sermon). There are shades of BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON in the way that he shows us how he fakes his exorcisms, and Fabian’s Reverend Cotton Marcus, though he’s a benevolent presence rather than a psychotic one, is just as genial a host in these early scenes as Vernon is in that film. As the film amps up the script becomes a little more by the numbers, but Fabian’s strong presence helps it retain credibility even as the camerawork and screenplay slip from their verite stylings.

Good though Fabian is, he and everyone else in the film is completely outshone by Ashley Bell. This has been an interesting pattern in these recent exorcism films; they’ve always seen standout performances from the young actress playing the possession victim. Bell’s sweetly naïve Nell Sweetzer is instantly lovable (in a lovely character beat she’s delighted when, after she admires them, the crew’s sound recordist (Bahr) gives her her boots) and her dextrous performance – in both a physical and an emotional sense – carries the film. With her girl next door prettiness and the obvious acting chops on show here, Bell is definitely a name to watch for and like Sandra Huller in REQUIEM she makes the film worth seeing by herself.

I was genuinely involved in THE LAST EXORCISM, because it does take the time to set up credible characters before introducing its horror elements, and that meant that even when, in the last forty minutes or so, Daniel Stamm’s directorial style veered away from faux documentary to something closer to traditional shaky-cam style I didn’t mind all that much, because while the direction serves the film well, this isn’t a film to come to for the pretty pictures, it’s the slow build of the story and characters that really make it work, and frankly that’s what a lot of American horror has missed of late.

I appreciated both the patient pacing (which gives the occasional shock real punch) and the film’s dedication to keeping it unclear just what is happening to Nell (well, until the last ten minutes take a huge shit on that aspect), until that disastrous ending this is more of a psychological than a visceral or supernatural tale, and it’s all the more effective for it because many of the real life possibilities thrown up for Nell’s condition are scarier by far than the supernatural ones.

On the whole I’d definitely recommend that you check out THE LAST EXORCISM, because it is both involving and at times unnerving, and because it boasts a couple of very fine performances from actors you likely haven’t seen before. However, I would suggest that you walk out the first time the film appears to end, believe me, staying for the last ten minutes is a bad idea.

1 comment:

  1. I thought the Last Exorcism was such a great movie! Really makes you think, and makes me want to see it again just to put the pieces together!