It All Happens In The Dark

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Sympathy for the Devil

Ashley Bell has a religious experience.

The Last Exorcism (2010)

The Last Exorcism is good. Really good. In my opinion it is indeed better than The Exorcist. (If I had any readers here I would be wary of hate mail and a demand for my horror lover card to be returned but thus far I think I am safe.) I’ve never really been a fan of that William Peter Blatty film – I appreciate the impact it had on culture and the horror community, but I have always felt it was too mechanical, too detached and too cold – it was good film making but it never managed to shake me to the soul the way that is had so many others. (Or honestly, bother me much at all.) It seems a disservice to open a review of one film by writing about another film, but in the case of The Last Exorcism it is not only warranted, it almost seems expected. The film opens in Baton Rouge and the only reason I mention that is because it is my hometown – represent! The only real complaint I have against this film is that it makes everyone in the South either look like a huckster or a religious ninny. And that is not to say they do not develop the characters here or that they are all dim-witted mouth breathers. There is real concentration on trying to get to know these characters and there is some really credible, effective acting. Patrick Fabian is marvelous as Cotton Marcus – he is a priest who is very enthusiastic and charming and the scenes of him early with his family and leading a sermon in church show his charisma and sense of humor – but soon we see that this is all just a cover for a deeper contempt he has for religion, the people that he is supposed to be spiritually advising and even the life he has made for himself. From a very young age he was thrust into the church by his father and now he has lost not only his faith in God and religion but his faith in himself. At one point Cotton claims that if you believe in God you must believe in the devil, and so since his belief in God has faltered, too has his understanding of “evil” been changed. But he still does want to help people. The reason he has continued to do exorcisms is not because he thinks they work as they are meant to but because he read an article about a young boy who was killed during one by a clergyman and his family who were trying to cleanse him. So if he can make sure that just one person is not killed during an exorcism because he himself is performing it, he has felt it was worthwhile – he knows that he is not banishing any real demons, but he is offering a service and ensuring that no one is hurt and no lives are lost in the attempt to return someone to a pre-demon life. Well, as you may have guessed this he has decided will be his last exorcism. He has also decided to have it documented on film to show how easily an exorcism can be faked and what a bunch of hooey it all really is. He has chosen at random a candidate from mail he received requesting his help and now he travels to a backwoods Southern farm where cattle have been slaughtered and a father has come to believe his daughter is possessed and is responsible. There is also a brother who is angry and suspicious of the priest and his camera crew, and the daughter in question is all sweet-apple-pie cheeks and perfect Southern manners.

Well, an exorcism does take place, and thankfully they don’t draw it out or over blow it. There is really only one way to film an exorcism and we’ve all seen it done over and over again (however I will credit the Winona Ryder vehicle Lost Souls for trying something new and keeping us outside of the room while the exorcism takes place which I thought was a creative change-up). Also, here the priest is a charlatan, so as we witness the exorcism itself we also cut away to the priest before the ritual began rigging the room and explaining to us the ruses he uses.

Originally I suspected that this film would be trying to outdo The Exorcist and proclaim itself THE exorcism movie of ALL TIME. But that is hardly the case. This is a slow-burn of a film that is thoughtful and pays homage to other films that have come before it but is never disrespectful or repetitive.

The acting is top-notch on all fronts, from Fabian as our antagonist, to Ashley Bell as the unfortunate focus of the supernatural goings-on – she gives a very convincing and emotionally honest performance. I am very glad the filmmakers did not go the way of Emily Rose and have our character contorting and monstifying her body – that was a tactic effective in that film but here it would have been unrealistic and disappointing. When the demon is called upon to show himself and Ashley’s character Nell cries that she can feel him coming through her skin it is all the more chilling because of its subtly. While there are a few bodily adjustments that take place they are incidental and minimal enough to not alienate us as viewers. There are so many small touches here that make the film feel all the more authentic, and show us that the filmmakers actually cared about the product they were putting out there.

Many people disliked the ending, but I found it to be the only ending the movie could have had – I thought it fit, I thought it worked, I thought the film earned it and I did not feel cheated but rather rewarded by it. By now it isn’t a spoiler to ask – can you ever trust a priest in a horror movie? I really did enjoy this film and it really did impress me – it wasn’t just some tossed off attempt to cash in on what has been recently popular and often filmed. The handheld camera work too, was far from distracting, and I forgot at times to even notice it. I would not be surprised if this goes on to become a cult favorite or even to be considered a minor classic. It was not at all what I was expecting from the trailers and TV ads and posters, so I would advise you to ignore those and go in with an open mind. Paranormal Activity you have been owned. B+

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