Simple scares more effective than demonic twists and turns
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, August 27, 2010
The exorcism that ignites Daniel Stamm's unnerving new chiller, "The Last Exorcism," is supposed to be a sham, a simple hoax performed by a dishonest Protestant preacher who hopes to expose the church's ancient practice as fraud.
The scares that transpire once the man of faith's plan goes awry, however, are very real.
Drawing inspiration from recognizable sources -- the documentary filmmaking style of "The Blair Witch Project," the investigative-journalism tactics of a "20/20" exposé -- Stamm creates an anxious psychological horror that's vaguely familiar yet refreshingly original.
It's also tremendously creepy, a mesmeric tiptoe through controversial debates on fundamentalist religions and psychology. It maintains its subtle tensions until the crucial final minutes, when the mysteries of Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland's screenplay must be explained with answers that, to be honest, fall a little short.
Before that, "Exorcism" delivers. It establishes a clever premise, suggests a few meaty spiritual conundrums and earns every one of its uncomfortable squirms.
Much like Father Damien Karras in William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" -- still the high-water mark for Hollywood's demonic possession genre -- the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has misplaced his faith. To him, religion is a sideshow, a practical and lucrative way to both feed his family and bolster the wavering faith of his Baton Rouge congregation.
Marcus, who comes from a long line of exorcists, would be the first to tell you he's performing from the pulpit. Yet the cocky reverend still bristles when someone asks if he's a fraud. Marcus sees value in the service he provides his Deep South community -- that is, until a news story crosses his desk regarding a young boy who is suffocated to death by a fervent, amateur exorcist.
Disgusted by the charade of Christianity's exaggerated exorcisms, Marcus sets out to expose the deceitful practice. He invites a camera crew on a mission trip to rural Louisiana where Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) fears his timid teenage daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is possessed. Marcus intends to fake Nell's exorcism for the camera's benefit, thereby poking a hole through the ancient religious task. Needless to say, things don't go as planned.
Revealing any more would strip "Exorcism" of its visceral impact. It may even be a mistake to mention specific films you'll likely discuss after viewing "Exorcism," though it's safe to say Friedkin's masterpiece and another horror staple from the late 1960s (this one directed by Roman Polanski) would make for excellent companion pieces.
Stamm's disciplined picture certainly has more in common with those films than, say, "Cloverfield," "Paranormal Activity" or other recent spellbinders that used jiggly, cinema verite techniques to shake up the audience. Stamm's tricks are basic. The director tweaks us with an unexpected sleepwalker, boiling water, whispering voices chanting Latin passages and the sound of a crying baby when there's no infant in the house. The simplicity of each new scare only seems to disturb us more.
Look deeper, though, and you'll find serious questions aimed at devout followers of any religion who cling to faith at the expense of logic. Bell may bend and twist in her best Linda Blair impersonation as the once-innocent Nell wrestles with her perceived demons. But "Exorcism" would collapse in a puddle of demonic green vomit if not for Fabian's unyielding performance. As Stamm's drama settles in, it becomes less the story of a possessed girl and more the tortured journey of a snake oil salesman forced by the hand of God to stare into his own murky soul. I'd be terrified to imagine "Exorcism" without him.
Contains disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material.