Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Last Exorcism: The Play's The Thing

"A ceremonial chamber essentially provides a stage for a performer who wishes complete acceptance from his audience. The audience becomes, in fact, part of the show. It has become fashionable in recent years to incorporate the audience into theatrical performances. This started with audience participation, with selected members of the audience called up to the stage to assist a performer in his role. Gradually this developed to such a degree that entire audiences mingled with the cast."- Anton LaVey, The Satanic Rituals
Belief is tricky, especially when applied to horror. I had a discussion about this with my wife the other day, spurred by a showing of the movie Death Tunnel on SyFy. The brief is "college girls spend night in haunted sanatorium, bad things happen", and let's face it, what else are you going to get with something titled Death Tunnel?

(Well, what you get is a lot of post-Saw choppy editing and intercutting between the past and present that seems to take up the first half of the film and really not much else, but that's not the point.)

So my wife points out that by spending the night in an abandoned, purportedly haunted mental hospital, the college girls are just asking for it - no sane person would do this for exactly the reasons outlined. I rebutted by pointing out that part of the logic of the movie is that they live in a world where these sort of things don't actually happen. They don't see anything wrong with it for the same reason we don't see anything wrong with it - shit like that only happens in horror movies, and as far as they know (since even the Scream movies don't get that close to a Pirandello play), they aren't in a horror movie. The belief that ghosts and demons (and even uncatchable criminal mastermind serial killers with ridiculously baroque methods) either exist or don't exist makes all the difference in the personal narrative we construct for our lives and circumstances. Most horror movies have characters who don't believe in these things, so that the proof that they do exist is that much more upsetting - the protagonists are not only in mortal danger, but their entire worldview is being upended at the same time.

The Last Exorcism is an excellent and scary film which is, at the end of the day, about belief.

Reverend Cotton Marcus is a man divided. Raised from early childhood to be a preacher - when other children were outside playing ball, he was studying scripture - he is very good at his job and has been for some time. We see footage of him leading what appears to be a small Evangelical service and he is preaching up a storm. He paces up and down between the pews, raises his hands to the heavens, flings his arms out wide, all the time clutching his well-word copy of the Bible. It's practically one with his hand, like an extension of his arm. His audience is transported, and his calls for amens and hallelujahs are gladly fulfilled. To all appearances, the Reverend Cotton Marcus is at one with the Holy Spirit.

But back at home, with his wife and son, he is not so fervent. His life is one for which he did not ask - he was the fourth or so generation of Marcus men to be preachers. His job was chosen for him before he could speak. His lifetime preaching has shown him the power of the Word to transport, and perhaps to distract. He has realized he can say anything and it will be joyfully received, as demonstrated by footage of a powerful sermon in which he segues smoothly into and out of a line-by-line recitation of a recipe for banana bread without anyone noticing. He's a basically decent man, but it was never a calling for him, and the wear is starting to show.

This is made worse, and his concern more pressing, by the other specialty of the Marcus family: Exorcism.

Cotton doesn't believe in demons, but he believes that other people do. Until recently, he has been able to reconcile his own doubt with the services he provides by telling himself that if others' beliefs suggest that demons are to blame, then the rituals Cotton performs will banish those problems by banishing the "demons", no matter what Cotton thinks. He is a rational man providing irrational aid, but a recent case involving the smothering death during an exorcism of a boy with autism was Cotton's proverbial straw: He can no longer provide this service knowing that it is not only fraudulent, but also beginning to claim lives. So he has asked a documentary film crew to come along with him to his last exorcism, so that he can expose the service for the fraud it is. He picks an envelope from his P.O. box at random, and he and the crew are off to the Sweetzer farm in rural Louisiana.

Louis Sweetzer is a man who has seen his share of trouble - wife dead of breast cancer, he's starting to find comfort in the bottle and a very strict form of Christian faith - the local pastor says Louis left the church because their teachings were "insufficiently medieval" - one which has lead him to homeschool his children and forbid anything secular in the home. He believes his daughter Nell is possessed because his cattle are being mutilated to death (an angry, resentful son?) and her cross pendant has begun to burn her skin (a nickel allergy?). They live in a community full of superstition - the camera crew captures locals prattling on and on about Satanic cults, UFO sightings, mysterious omens. Cotton spends some time with Nell, and she seems genuinely sweet and innocent. She's 14, but seems much younger, occupying much of her time drawing pictures of religious figures.

This is all going to be by the book - a very religious father is keeping his kids from having much of a childhood and the seclusion, combined with the local susceptibility for the fantastic, is making everyone a little crazy. Cotton knows what this is like, and he prepares everything he needs for the exorcism - his family copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, his cross (hollowed out to admit a smoke cartridge), an MP3 player with an assortment of "demonic" sounds on it, monofilament line to make pictures in the room shake, conductive rings to cause muscle spasms in Nell during the exorcism. He is as much a pro at putting on this show as he is preaching, and his patter is smooth and sure. From the outside, his act even looks a little corny, and as much as Cotton seems to be a good person trying to right his past wrongs, the ease with which he pulls off the exorcism con is a little uncomfortable. Money is exchanged, and Cotton throws in a message from the beyond about how it's bad to keep your sadness "bottled up" and how "that bottle" is going to bring Louis nothing but misery. Job done, footage secured, Cotton and crew are off to their motel, miles away, in preparation for the long trip back to Baton Rouge.

Until Nell shows up in Cotton's motel room, in the middle of the night, feverish and not remembering how she got there. Until Nell attacks her brother with a knife. Until Nell kills the family cat.

Until Nell starts talking in a voice that isn't hers.

The Last Exorcism is a well-constructed example of the slow burn - we don't even get to the Sweetzer farm and a low faint hum of dread until about halfway through the film, and it's two-thirds of the way into the second half before the shit really gets ill. The worst of it is tightly compressed - things go very bad, very fast. Until then, we are learning everything we can about Cotton, the Sweetzer family, and the worlds in which each of them live. The performances are all solidly on the right side of low-key - these feel like real people, not stock characters in a demonic possession film. Cotton treads the line between family man, man of God, and con man well enough to generate genuine ambivalence - you don't want to hate him, but you're not really sure you should like him, either. It's a more nuanced portrayal of the priest who has lost faith than you usually get.

Nell's innocence isn't little-girl cloying, either. In one especially effective scene, she admires the Doc Martens one of the film crew are wearing, and when the crew member gives them to her, her face lights up with delight and disbelief. A gift? For her? It's actual joy we see. Louis is a hot-tempered servant of an angry God, but he's also a tired, sad father, full of doubt and grief, still mourning a wife lost despite medicine's best efforts. His son Caleb is full of anger at everything and contempt for his father. This is a movie in which we are supposed to care about the people who are going to face something monstrous, and I did. You know going in that something bad is going to happen to them, and it makes you sad knowing this will end in tragedy for all involved.

As we learn the family's story, as we learn more and more about Nell and her mysterious fevers and disquiet, the pictures full of blood and death she has begun to draw, explanations unfold for the events at the Sweetzer farm. The last act of the movie is filmed in deep shadow, and there's no guarantee that the light is going to show us anything we want to see. Hints and suggestions from throughout the movie begin to pay off, and just when we think the worst is over, it gets yet again worse, veers further into the unnatural. It becomes ever clearer that there is playing your part, and then there is playing a part, and that some rituals are more real than others. You can believe whatever you want, but when the monsters show up in whatever form they come, mythical or secular, your beliefs will not save you.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix


  1. Wow! Now I have to see this. I like the discussion about how characters in horror films don't believe that they are in one.

  2. In light of this post (and granted, I'm a little late getting to it), I'd love to hear your analysis of Scooby-Doo.