The Last Exorcism
The power of Christ compels you… to ignore The Exorcist and get possesed instead by Stamm’s smart, literate shockumentary about the insanity of faith
The Last Exorcism
(Daniel Stamm, US, 2010)
With a title like The Last Exorcism, there’s one almighty elephant in the room to deal with before Daniel Stamm’s film can find its own identity. It says much about this intelligent, playfully provocative movie that Stamm nimbly sidesteps the gargantuan presence of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist by suggesting it only told a fraction of the story. The Roman Catholics, we are told, get all the press about exorcisms because “they’ve got the film,” but since all religions suffer the same problems with demons there’s a lot more to say. Plenty, as it happens, with Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s literate script tripling as theological debate, pitch-perfect satire and old-school creepshow.
The religion they’ve chosen is one familiar to any student of American Southern Gothic – the fervent evangelical strain of Christianity whereby faith is determined by who can shout Hallelujah the loudest and longest, and where the modern, secular world is kept at arm’s bay in rural Louisiana hideaways. It’s a brilliant setting, ripe with cultural clashes and the polar opposite of Friedkin’s urban haunted house. Stamm’s eye for detail is strong, acutely observes the consumer society divinity of a family who measures their faith by the number of tacky Jesus icons they can clutter their house with.
Into the fray arrives Reverend Cotton Marcus, a child preacher turned adult fraud, a modern-day soothsayer who pockets the cash from elaborately staged exorcisms in order to pay for his family’s health insurance. Outwardly he’s the very model of the bizarre celebrity accorded to Deep South preachers, with his smooth patter and blandly handsome looks (although some British viewers may find extra levels of meaning in actor Patrick Fabian’s uncanny resemblance to chav-show host Jeremy Kyle). Fabian is a wickedly witty and very likeable charlatan, a Bible-bashing William Castle with his arsenal of buzzers, digital recorders and hollow, smoke-filled crosses. Everything about his religion is disposable, from the detachable Jesus fish he slaps onto his car before a job, to the pragmatic wearing of a linen suit to conduct his ‘exorcisms’ because of the heat.
Cotton drags a documentary crew along for the ride as he attempts to debunk the entire exorcism industry and, at random, selects the hillbilly Sweetzer family, as isolated a bunch of religious nuts as is imaginable, from stern father Louis (Louis Herthum), slow-talking son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and immature teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), the object of the apparent possession herself. The symptons are textbook stuff, a nightly slaughter of the farm’s beasts and an oblivious Nell waking each morning covered in cow’s blood. But since the family is grieving the loss of their wife and mother, daddy’s a drunk and Nell is being home-schooled to protect her from the sinful influences of the modern world, there’s got to be a plausible psychological explanation for all of this. Right?
And therein lies the genius of the documentary approach. This is a ruthlessly grounded movie, in which just about everything is explicable both as Satanic influence or Freudian acting-out. For the first half, nothing untowards happens at all, Stamm taking his time to tease out the subtle provocations of the script and delivering a mockumentary that’s more plausible than most because of the anonymity of the actors. Even when things start going bump in the night, there’s no 180 degree head spins, pea green vomit and certainly nothing as freakazoid as a spider-walk. There’s just Ashley Bell, in a tremendous sweet/sour transformation, going feral with frightening ease and speed – Beelzebub’s child or just a victim of trauma? Even the film’s final sucker-punch twist leaves enough room for interpretation that it can be read both ways.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that this deliberate ambiguity results in underpowered scares, especially compared to its obvious structural touchstone, The Blair Witch Project. That overcame the limitations of the ‘found footage’ format by incrementally upping the dread, but Stamm’s refusal to really go for it means that much of the film’s second half consists of Cotton and crew running up and down stairs to try and conjure up some tension. On the other hand, the cool refusal to blow the premise on cheap shocks in favour of maintaining its clever, clinical interrogation of faith as a form of insanity is what makes this such a profound movie. Who would have thought that producer Eli Roth, the poster-boy for modern WYSIWYG gore, could bring something so sophisticated to the screen?