Movie leaves slim chance of ever sleeping again

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2010

"The Last Exorcism"

Ap Photo/Lionsgate, Patti Perret
Ap Photo/Lionsgate, Patti Perret
In this publicity image released by Lionsgate, clockwise from left, Patrick Fabian, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones and Ashley Bell are shown in a scene from, "The Last Exorcism."

Strike Entertainment

1 hour, 27 minutes

As the credits rolled on this week's horror flick, "The Last Exorcism," I let out a shuddery gasp, aware that I'd been holding my breath for what seemed like the last five minutes. My wife, sitting beside me, peeled my gripped hand off her leg and turned to me sharply. "Are you kidding me!? I'm never going to the movies again! I'm never going to sleep again!"

This response, despite the slightly panicked, frazzled tone, was exactly what the filmmakers of this 90-minute, micro-budget thriller were hoping for, and one shared by movie-goers across the country. "The Last Exorcism," the scariest movie I've seen in a long time, came in first in box office receipts this weekend, raking in a good ten times its production costs.

There's a lesson here that I think Hollywood should learn. Following in the footsteps of other low-budget successes "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity," "Exorcism" uses mostly unknown actors, mined from television and the stage, and employs a documentary format that enhances the sense of realism. There are very few special effects, almost no blood or gore, and no sex or language. Without these standard props, director Daniel Stamm is forced to depend on the clever construction of his script and the stellar, if subtle, performances of his actors. The result is a film that is truly scary, terrifying, if you want to know the truth, rather than simply assaulting.

Patrick Fabian plays Reverend Cotton Marcus, a small-town evangelical preacher specializing in the kind of high-energy, performance style sermonizing so popular in parts of the deep south. Taking the mantle from his father, Cotton began preaching as a child, performing his first exorcism before he was a teenager. "Exorcism is alive and well in this country," Cotton tells us, facing the camera during one of the interview portions of the documentary film he's commissioned. "The Catholics are the most well known for it, because they had the movie, but exorcisms are performed in every major religion in the world." This is a chilling prospect, but we, the audience, are somewhat soothed by Cotton's next assertion, that it's all fake. Our hero, who has performed dozens of exorcisms, has lately lost his faith and, after the widely reported death of an autistic child during a botched procedure, is setting out to expose the fraud by allowing a documentary film crew to record the ceremony, going behind the scenes to show the tricks and fakery used to convince the subject that a demon has truly been exorcised. This is all well and good, and the film does a great job of making Cotton a sympathetic character -- a guy who certainly knows what he's shoveling, but also a man who believes that he's helping people nonetheless. Requests for exorcisms are frequent, and, opening an envelope at random, Cotton and the film crew head to a run-down farm in a run-down part of Louisiana, to meet a farmer named Louis Sweetzer.

Mr. Sweetzer is a man on the edge, devastated both by a recent spate of mutilated livestock, and more so by the realization that his teen-age daughter Nell is behind it. Black-outs, weird convulsions, and this violent behavior lead the deeply religious man to only one conclusion -- the devil. Cotton, on the facile assumption that if father and daughter believe a demon has been expelled, the underlying mental trauma will be healed, agrees to go forward with the exorcism.

Any clinical psychiatrist would likely take issue with this radical type of "therapy", but Cotton soon finds he's got bigger problems. Nell's "demon," far from disappearing, goes into overdrive, leading the cynical preacher to question his own lack of faith. Smart, engrossing, and nail-biting to the last, "The Last Exorcism" is a perfect combination of creative story-telling and economical filmmaking.

The weight of the production falls to Cotton Marcus, and Fabian, a veteran of small television roles, handles it ably. Like the best evangelical preacher, he puts us at ease, gaining our allegiance early, so that even the most questionable decisions seem at least marginally reasonable. "You want to go back the farmhouse in the middle of the night without calling the police first? OK, if you say so ..."

Representing the audience is Iris, the documentarian, who follows gamely at first, but with increasing trepidation as the stakes rise. Though on screen only marginally, her presence is felt throughout, and actress Iris Behr does a fine job in the role. Perhaps the most challenging part in the film goes to young Nell, played by Ashley Bell. Ranging from innocent and sweetly dim to grotesque and contorted, Bell keeps you guessing throughout. Is this real? Is it an act? Such a broad, colorful character as a demon-possessed girl is probably a dream for a young actor, but Bell keeps the character from descending into silly caricature.

Perhaps my only complaint about the film is a minor one, and certainly no fault of the filmmakers. As a graphic designer, I care deeply about movie posters. In fact, it'd be fair to say they're my favorite brand of commercial art. The advertising for "The Last Exorcism" is tired and incredibly derivative of a dozen, lesser movies.

The poster shows the same old creepy, contorted figure in some vague white room, scratchy and covered in grime. This gives the impression that what you're about to watch is a variation of the same gross-out monster/zombie/ghost movie they've been trotting out for the last five years.

"Exorcism" is not the same old movie you've seen before -- if I was handling the advertising, I would have created something that would catch the viewer off guard, because that's what this film does, and does masterfully.

Grade: A-

"The Last Exorcism" is rated PG-13 for brief, shocking violence and some really, really scary moments. It didn't have the traditional "R-rated" issues, but I don't think I'd want my 13-year-old to see it. Just a heads up.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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