It’s not easy being a horror fan these days. One need only witness the recent crop of horror fare, particularly in regard to the flaccid remakes of 1980s slasher movies, to realize that a certain segment of today’s audiences have grown accustomed to tidy little resolutions. Of course, this phenomenon is not confined to any specific genre, but horror movies are particularly guilty of being exclusively plot-driven and stocked with wholly undeveloped characters or, at the most, a handful of semi-developed characters for whom the audience doesn’t feel any real emotional involvement because, well, it’s pretty fucking difficult to cozy up to archetypes (no bedside manner or anything) who are probably gonna die anyway. At the same time, audiences aren’t entirely opposed to characterization or a story that ends with a good mindfuck, just so long as there’s fair warning before execution. Just look at the success of Inception, which was presumed (either by one’s preexisting knowledge of the director or by watching the trailers) to be such a mindbending picture that it would absolutely require multiple viewings, but that’s what folks have come to expect whenever Christopher Nolan is involved. Yet no one presumes that such thought processes should occur when watching a movie called The Last Exorcism, which shatters that expectation and several other conceits along the way.
As it happens, the original title of this movie isn’t even The Last Exorcism but Cotton. Now, any marketing department worth a damn realizes that a movie title should instantly declare something about its subject matter. Unfortunately, this title change is somewhat misleading because, sure, there is indeed an exorcism ceremony, which is intended to be the very last one of its kind, but this is very much a story about the Reverend Cotton Marcus (expertly rendered by Patrick Fabian of “Big Love” and “Veronica Mars”). Another contributing factor in potential audience confusion is the conceit involved with so-called “found footage” films: Shaky camera work; lazy, Swiss-cheese plot explained away as gaps in the footage; annoying and threadbare characters; and, most of all, a reliance upon the gimmick by all involved. However, The Last Exorcism is not really “found footage” but, in fact, a nearly completed documentary. To explain any further would breach spoiler territory other than to state that the polish factor is pretty damn high and, at a certain point, an interruption occurred in the planned documentary process. What takes place might appear inconceivable, but that’s part of the plan here because we see the entire story from the point of view of Cotton, who essentially loses control over a situation that he’s been rehearsing for his entire life. Some might not be comfortable with this lack of predictability, but any other ending would be inconsistent with the main character’s identity.
Now, speaking of preconceived expectations — we’ve all got them concerning one of this movie’s producers, and the general expectation is that I shall wax rhapsodic over the merits of anything that this dude touches.
But seriously, fuck Eli Roth.
Roth didn’t direct this movie, nor did he write the script. Quite simply, he acts in the capacity of “producer,” which is a wholly ambiguous term and not really important for our purposes. I suspect that Roth was heavily involved as an advisor and during post-production phrases as well as successfully confining this movie to a $1.8 million budget, but this movie isn’t what an audience would expect from his involvement and bears little overt evidence of his mainstream handiwork. This movie, quite properly, was helmed by Daniel Stamm, who quickly proves himself quite adept at establishing a subtle interplay between characters that builds to an unsettling crescendo (at about the 2/3 mark, when my right knee began to shake and never stopped) and continues until the end. Somehow, Stamm manages to do so without relying upon jump shots (just a solitary use towards the beginning) to scare his audience but, instead, preys upon the inherent creepiness involved with finding oneself irrevocably removed from the nearest comfort zone. The fact that the characters unyieldingly refuse to bend their viewpoints forms the essence of this film with fascinating results.
As mentioned, the central focus rests upon Reverend Cotton Marcus, an intelligent, quick-witted man and charismatic 2nd-generation congregation frontman, who began assisting during his father’s sermons at an early age. Basically, he’s the Diamond Dave of preachers — a natural performer who even pulls out his own special effects — yet never loses sight of his objectives: “Get em’ saved,” and more importantly, “Get ‘em in the wallet.” He’s a swaggering showman who can work his congregation up to such raptures that he can begin preaching a banana bread recipe and his patrons never even notice the difference, which makes it slightly understandable that Cotton has long since experienced a “crisis of faith” and has deferred to autopilot status. Even his notoriety as an exorcist is completely founded upon pomp and ceremony, for Cotton believes in neither God nor demons; but the fact that exorcism is alive and well (he slyly alludes to Catholics getting all the press because “they have the movie.”) has given him an opportunity to genuinely help people by convincing them that they’ve been freed from evil spirits. Until the present, Cotton has observed that all of this possession nonsense is just a psychological matter, but he certainly doesn’t mind making a nice wad of cash from the process of helping people. When asked by his camerawoman, Iris, whether he’s a fraud, Cotton responds, “That’s your word, not mine.”
So, with The Last Exorcism, any preexisting conceits from familiar horror tropes have been replaced with the conceit of the main character. That’s Cotton: a liar and a fraud but not an inherently evil person, and he’s got no reason to lie to the camera. He’s the unreliable narrator who admits his unreliability upfront and professes, quite genuinely, to be done with his past. In fact, he’s already contemplating what his next career movie will be: “Maybe I’ll sell real estate,” which would, presumably, require less deception on his part. Essentially, Cotton’s developed something of a conscience since becoming a father and is genuinely disturbed by newspaper reports of children killed during exorcisms gone bad. So, he’s consented to performing one final ceremony while being filmed “to expose exorcism for the scam that it is.” At random, he plucks a letter from his growing pile of requests and heads to Ivanwood, Louisiana where young Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), a sweet and unassuming homeschooled girl, has been killing off the family livestock. Her father, Louis (Louis Herthum), is convinced that Nell is possessed by the devil. Naturally, Cotton has scientific explanations for every symptom exhibited by Nell, but he appeases the family by performing an exorcism with the expectation that Nell will snap out of it.
Shortly thereafter, it becomes obvious that Cotton is fully unprepared to deal with the situation at hand and also too stuck in his ways to accept that demons might truly exist. Similarly, Louis’ staunch fundamentalism causes him to demand that Cotton continue to attempt saving Nell, and both men refuse to acknowledge that perhaps their respective beliefs might not lead to the absolute truth. So, while Cotton’s doing his best Vegas lounge act and Louis alternately issues physical threats and cries silent tears, the two characters engage in a war of wills while dodging the intervening viewpoints of Nell’s brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), and a member of the documentary crew, Iris (Iris Baher). Meanwhile, Nell’s situation spookily deteriorates in a very solid performance from Ashley Bell, who not only contorts her own body but also stretches to accommodate both personalities emanating from her character. The end result is a successful movie with a smart, character-driven script, which turns upon subtleties within finely-tuned performances; and, while Stamm ultimately drops several clues, he provides no single, definitive answer on the science-religion debate. Wisely so, for it would have been awfully presumptuous for him to do so.
Quite fittingly, the movie concludes by placing the audience (at least, those who want things spelled out for them) outside of their own comfort zone. There is no Kaiser Söze moment when Cotton miraculously recovers from a stutter and a limp before jumping into a chauffeured ride while the camera pans back towards an eternally double-taking detective, a literal wall full of clues, and a fax machine-dictated reveal. In fact, the so-called “big reveal” involved with the last few minutes leaves far more open questions than concrete answers, which could be slightly bewildering. Of course, if one doesn’t react defensively and simply takes a couple of hours to mull things over, a finely textured series of layers shall begin to reveal themselves. The Last Exorcism is meant to inspire thought, which just might be its downfall amongst an audience who indiscriminately embraces stuff like the Prom Night remake or, for that matter, the basic existence of the Transformers franchise. Anyone who expects a traditional resolution to Cotton Marcus’ story — some sort of clear victory or loss — will likely declare the ending to be “stupid” and sound just as unaware and cocksure as Cotton himself.
As the latest in a wave of PG-13 horror flicks, The Last Exorcism poses several similarities to Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell in regard to a mix of comical and creepy moments in a tale of psychological horror with minimal gore. This movie neither rips off nor attempts to stand in the place of The Exorcist and blows away much lesser fare like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Constantine. Reactions will suffer somewhat from Lionsgate’s marketing tactics — which, leading up to the release date, edged into what so-called experts would describe as “guerrilla marketing” — that may have misled a significant percentage of audience members. Still, studios are just learning to feel their way around the internet and, when opening weekend is everything, studios opt to reel ‘em in and deal with the rest of it at a later date…. again, just like Cotton Marcus.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.