Directed by Daniel Stamm
In the surprise box-office hit The Last Exorcism, the found-footage horror meme stumbles on ten years from its 1999 resurrection in the form of The Blair Witch Project. Although the genesis of this particular strand of gruesome cinema can be detected back to the notorious Cannibal movies of the 1970’s. this latest entry to the sub-genre has more in common with its 1999 colleague in that it is an experience aiming for an effective insertion of chills and thrills rather than gore and disgust, a design achieved by presenting ‘real world’ events on a cinematic canvass that is more attuned to flights of fantasy and blissful escape. The Last Exorcism served as the closing night gala of this year’s hugely successful Frightfest, as it was a suitably high-profile finale to proceedings with the cast, director and horror superstar turned producer Eli Roth in tow for this eagerly anticipated European premiere.
In this malicious mockumentary a charismatic yet disillusioned preacher and part-time exorcist Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has had an epiphany of sorts and invites a documentary crew into his life to illustrate how he had forged a shameful career in performing cleansing rituals on the allegedly possessed, an adumbration driven by the recent near-death illness of his beloved son and the revelation that a young autistic child had been accidentally killed in a similar deceit some weeks before. Taking a letter at random from those pleas for aid that he receives every day the Reverend and a modest two person crew of cameraman and producer / director / soundperson head down to the murky swamps of Louisiana to visit the afflicted Sweetzer family, a religious clan presided over by the gruff patriarch Louis, his hostile son Caleb and his doe-eyed, serenely innocent daughter Nell (an unearthly Ashley Bell), the apparent target of a daemon’s wicked infection. As Marcus and the team investigate the root cause of Nell’s uncertain condition and the horrific animal mutilations that have plagued the Sweetzer family home some uncomfortable conclusions are raised: is the derangement the result of an otherworldly intervention or is the cause of Nell’s distress and unconscious acts of violence a little closer to home?
The Last Exorcism is a well executed entry to the found footage movement although it does side-step the sub-genre framework a little. At certain points, non-diagetic sounds enter the frame and the editorial perspective shifts reveal that there must have been two cameras present to capture the foreboding events. The film builds a slyly tense, faintly frantic atmosphere during its opening half as the key question of whether Nell is actually possessed or merely psychologically deranged due to some terrible, all too tangible abuse colliding with her strict religious upbringing is left ambiguous, a crafty design that should keep the audience engaged and intrigued with the consequent revelations to come. Patrick Fabian convinces as the magnetic Marcus, but the real star of the film is the polysemous Nell, through a genuinely eerie and unsettling performance from relative new-comer Bell provides the requisite creeping terror through her bodily contortions and delivery of diabolical dialogue. The film comments simultaneously on the nature of ‘reality’ television and documentary cinema with all its inherent subterfuges and mis-directions – witness the original exorcism scene where we see Reverend Marcus cunningly conceal the tricks of his trade including the hidden microphones and electronic props to convince his audience of a maleficent presence being exiled – mirroring the inherent manipulations of a format that purports to be ‘real’ despite the conventions of editorial selection, of narrative crafting manipulation and time conscious appeasement that must be obeyed to deliver a coherent tale.
Where the film will ultimately succeed or fail depends on individual reaction to the plot fractures of its final ten minutes; judging by the response to the conclusion (which this reviewer quite enjoyed for its unexpected twists, quite a rare achievement in the contemporary horror scene) fans either found the developments utterly ludicrous and unsatisfying or refreshing and rejuvenating. Given the film’s financial achievement – approaching $35 million against a $1.8 million production budget in the US alone – one can expect The Penultimate Exorcism hitting cinema screens sometime soon.