The Last Exorcism: An Exercise in Cinematic Suicide

27 08 2010

If three-way love-children were possible, The Last Exorcism could be considered the offspring of Paranormal Activity, The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project, the product of a seemingly respectable horror gene pool. And with horror veteran Eli Roth producing, early projections for the movie are positive. Here’s the breakdown:

Cotton Marcus is a pastor extraordinaire – his theatrical style has made him popular with his congregation and his family. Acting as his father’s successor, Cotton not only performs rousing Sunday morning sermons, he performs the occasional exorcism as well. What Cotton’s family doesn’t know (and what Cotton decides to share with a documentary film crew) is that his faith is waning, and before retiring, he hopes to reveal the sham of the modern exorcism. With film crew in tow, Cotton heads to Louisiana, to the Sweetzer farm, where he meets Nell…and encounters more than he bargained for.

The Monkey: The Last Exorcism manages to inject originality, humor and suspense into a genre I thought for sure had been bled dry. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I was completely compelled by the dark humor and imaginative premise. Cotton’s determination to expose exorcisms coupled with his jaded outlook on religion made for a winning combination of original elements rarely seen in horror films.

The best scenes of the movie involved Cotton’s deceptive exorcism “techniques” and his scathing criticisms of religion. Not only does this lead to unexpected comedy, it fleshes out the otherwise two-dimensional “priest” character ever-present in religious/horror films. His story of lost faith and disillusionment will resonate with modern audiences and make Cotton an instantly believable and likable character.

Similarly, I was impressed with how well director Daniel Stamm was able to depict the troubled Sweetzer family. With grieving widower Louis, troubled son Caleb and “possessed” daughter Nell, the Sweetzers could easily have fallen into horror victim stereotypes. But Stamm was able to rise above the conventions and create believable and even sympathetic characters. Especially in the case of Louis Sweetzer; the audience feels his conflicted emotions – the loss of his wife, the mysterious happenings with his daughter. It’s rare to see even one well-rounded character in a genre film, let alone several.

The documentary film style was well suited to the story, creating the necessary atmosphere for the movie. The suspense was certainly built well, gradually increasing as the plot moved from dark comedy to mystery, from mystery to…

The Weasel: …to what? To a half-way creepy faux-documentary? Sure, the suspense was expertly crafted, perfectly layered, building to a much-anticipated scary-as-hell conclusion. But The Last Exorcism never delivered. In fact, it not only never delivered (excuse the double negative), it flat-out refused to deliver. It very nearly looked the audience in the eye, hocked a gooey loogie and spit in the audience’s collective face, cackling as it dashed any hope of a satisfactory conclusion from the screen. It was this conscious and blatant act of cinematic suicide that puzzled, frustrated and eventually just pissed me off.

Here was a brilliant movie, seamlessly weaving dark comedy, the over-used documentary film style and a promisingly creepy premise into a never-before-seen and wildly successful 80 minutes – only to completely destroy everything it worked to create in the final minutes of the movie.

Some may argue this violent reaction was purposeful, proof-positive that The Last Exorcism was a success, a piece of art that inspired emotion. Fine. Argue away. But that doesn’t change the fact that I felt cheated, let-down and completely disappointed.

And while the movie did a great job of characterizing Cotton and the Sweetzers, its complete lack of attention to the documentary film crew (Iris and cameraman Daniel) verged on distracting; their random appearances were unexpected and the movie’s belated attempt to emotionally connect them with the audience was laughable.

The first 80 minutes of this movie easily deserved 4 Death Stars, but I can’t, in good conscience, rate it so high when the movie so clearly disregarded its brilliant set-up…

2 Death Stars out of 5

What do you think? Were you satisfied with the ending? Did I completely miss the point? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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