Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New Release Review: The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010)

The Last Exorcism is yet another addition to the horror genre that has adopted the single-camera mockumentary style that has become somewhat overused recently. But where many attempts have failed, Daniel Stamm's film is supported by an intelligent and original premise, some well developed characters and a pair of excellent performances. The result is a genuinely scary and chillingly effective film that works as a collaboration of The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project and Rosemary's Baby.

The first 20 minutes or so is really fantastic as we are revealed to Reverent Cotton Marcus (played by Patrick Fabian), a minister who lives in Baton Rouge with his wife and disabled son. Schooled from a young age to follow in his father's footsteps (who performed over 150 exorcisms), Marcus has become a respected minister and exorcist to possessed individuals. Clearly disillusioned, and speaking to the camera he reveals that his faith was tested after he discovered that an autistic boy was killed during an exorcism and decided to favor science over Jesus Christ in deciding the health of his son. Wishing to retire, he invites the documentary crew of Iris (producer/director) and Daniel (cameraman) into his home and informs them that he will reveal his fraudulent exorcism techniques during one last job. He chooses a request letter from random and is lead to the farmhouse of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a man who claims his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is possessed by a Demon.

As Cotton and his crew are driving towards the farmhouse they are threatened by a young boy who tells them to drive back the way they came, and then throws rocks at their car when they refuse. On arrival, they meet Louis and discover that the boy was in fact his son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). Nell is a sweet and innocent girl who on two occasions has awoken in the night and sliced at her father's livestock. After some tests on her health that he reveals to be a likely case of possession, Cotton decides to attempt an exorcism and places hidden speakers and electronic props in her room to create the illusion that he is driving out a demon. Nell appears to be improved and Louis pays Cotton, who retires to a hotel for the night, content that he has supplied the footage he intended. When a distraught Nell appears inside Cotton's room later that night and has no memory of getting there, it becomes clear that there is more to this case then Cotton had originally thought. They return her to the farmhouse and seek a way to improve her clearly troubled well-being. There are a number of interesting twists and reveals that address themes of incest and rape, and a violent schizophrenic personality. The latter is most evident through Nell's disturbing drawings of Cotton, Iris and Daniel and one particular sequence where Nell steals the video camera while the crew are sleeping and bashes one of her cats to death before also attempting to kill Cotton as he sleeps. Throughout this struggle to manage her sanity, Cotton refuses to perform another exorcism, instead recommending that Louis resort to psychotherapy (or science) to deal with Nell's mental state. The concluding sequences are pretty intense, but I just couldn't shake the similarities to The Blair Witch Project, and just wished I could see more of what was happening, rather than a quick look here and there. Illuminated only by the light of the camera, the characters are closely followed as they creep around in the dark house. We expect to see something jump out of the corner of the screen at any moment.

It's all conveyed with such confidence that I found myself truly believing that what I was witnessing were true events for the first third of the film, and this is the intention. It is unfortunate, in the latter half of the film, that it becomes so blatantly obvious that this is not the case. Objective shots that served no purpose to the story other than to establish the location, and numerous requests by characters to turn the camera off, only to have it back on again filming minutes later undermined its realism. Besides this, there are a number of terrifying sequences in the second half and even the conclusion, which has been attacked by critics, leaves you reeling in shock as the credits roll. It's a terrific idea to document a disillusioned minister rejecting his faith and revealing the falsities of his religion, who then actually encounters something supernatural but ultimately discovers he is incapable of believing it. For a first feature, Daniel Stamm really can't be faulted for his work here, and with Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) working as a producer, he may have learned a thing or two. The performances by Ashley Bell (which is certainly Oscar-worthy) and Patrick Fabian are exceptional, and I really felt that Cotton's humanity and actual willingness to help this girl certainly makes him a more likeable and respected protagonist than the usual tiresome and narcissistic dummies cast in the central roles of these doco-style horror films. The Last Exorcism is certainly one of the more effective horror chillers released this year, check it out.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

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