There will no doubt come a day when audiences tire of mockumentaries, fakeumentaries, docufantasias and perhaps even mockufaketasias. There are surely people in the world who are already sick of them. The author of this review is not one of these people. Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism is another of those “found footage” films; one that claims to contain a true document of real-life events. Much like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project before it, the film suggests that we are witnessing horrifying, supernatural events for reals. Of course, we know it’s all a fabrication, but suspending belief and buying into the illusion is half the fun (as is watching the filmmakers cheekily use recognisable documentary tropes to send shivers down our spines). The Last Exorcism may not offer much new to the recently-saturated genre (and it may be remembered as the film that squeezed the final drops of juice from the orange), but it’s one hell of a good time. The viewer is placed squarely in the position of anonymous documentarian in this charmingly comic, ably performed, surprisingly sincere and often chilling first-person funhouse of a film.
You would think Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a religious man (what with him being a Reverend and all), but you’d be wrong. Trained in the art of “exorcisms”, the Louisiana native is tired of flimflamming vulnerable folks into thinking that he was excising demons from their person. After hearing of an autistic child accidentally killed during an exorcism-gone-wrong (when do they go right?), Marcus recruits a documentary crew to help him expose the traditional rite as a scam. Producer/director Iris (Iris Bahr) and cameraman Daniel (Adam Grimes) join Marcus on his final mission: he has been summoned to the Sweetzer family farmhouse, where the devout Louis (Louis Herthum) believes his 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Marcus pulls out all the smoke and mirrors to trick the Sweetzers into thinking he is actually drawing an evil being from the naïve, terrified Nell (hidden iPod speakers play demonic howls – crafty!). Nell seems cured (at least of her belief that she’s possessed), and Marcus and crew leave the Sweetzers to live their lives happily ever after. But Nell isn’t cured, and The Not-Quite-An-Exorcist is drawn back to the farmhouse to save Nell and her family from … well, let’s not jump to any conclusions.
Although the cameraman is ostensibly called ‘Daniel’, he’s really a personality-free placeholder for us, the viewer. As the lights go out in the Sweetzers’ farmhouse, and the cameraman cautiously stalks the hallways in the dark, it feels as if we are strapped into a carnival ghost train, or perhaps in a first-person video game shooter (without the luxury of having a weapon). I suppose this novelty only adds to the film’s disposability, but it’s hard to think of a movie’s legacy and longevity when you’re busy giggling and jumping-in-your-seat and just generally enjoying yourself more than any adult man should in a cinema.
Although directed by German Stamm (who has previously worked on “found footage” movies), the real creative force behind the film seems to be screenwriting team Huck Botko and Andrew Hurland. The duo has spent much of the last decade working on comic documentaries, short films, and most recently, the sex-comedy/mockumentary The Virginity Hit. Although they would seem an odd fit for a project titled The Last Exorcism, they imbue the screenplay with honesty and honest laughs. The movie’s first forty-five minutes acts as a legitimately witty satire of religious fundamentalists and the now-totally-lame concept of exorcisms (“the spirit of Christ compels you … yawn”). When the stakes are raised in the final act, the audience has been utterly disarmed. And instead of winking at us and promising that it will be all right, they trust that we want to feel terror. If your “found footage” quotient was exhausted by last month’s Paranormal Activity 2, then I can’t say that The Lost Exorcism will offer much more than you haven’t already seen. But it’s hard not to appreciate a $1.8 million thriller that exemplifies more humour, heart, and – most importantly – horror, than Hollywood’s biggest of blockbusters. No lie.
The Last Exorcism arrives in cinemas November 25, 2010.