The Last Exorcism (2010, d. Daniel Stamm)
Most faux documentaries are phonies. I don’t mean to state the obvious. I mean to say that a sub-genre of horror films (and an innovation in internet marketing) was started in 1999 with the Blair Witch Project. Blair was the first, to my knowledge, to incorporate elements of cinema vérité, reality television, and teen-oriented horror into a truly different kind of scary movie. It spawned many off-spring most of which are either Blair knock offs – The Last Horror Movie, June 9 – or routine horror narratives wearing a hand-held camera for post-modern disguise – Cloverfield, Rec, The Fourth Kind. What was neat about Blair, and what I like about The Last Exorcism is that the phony documentary conceit isn’t just a different way of telling a story, it’s that the making of a supposed documentary and the fictional filmmakers themselves are the story. The Last Exorcism doesn’t exhibit the, now overdone, “true story” or “found footage” artifice. There’re all fake. We know that. In this one the hand-held camera, in real time, is our voyeuristic guide into a very weird mystery. We also identify with the documentary filmmaker characters themselves who get over their heads in dilemmas of ethics and personal responsibility, and in attempting to determine what is real.
Cotton is an evangelical preacher who has had a crisis of religious doubt. He is now an admitted huckster in his longtime use of magic tricks, con-artistry and performance, particularly in the stagecraft of demonic exorcism. Cotton is getting out of the phony exorcism business and brings in a video crew to document his last exorcism; his last production. Cotton and crew stumble into helping a rural Louisiana family, whose teenage daughter has been slaughtering livestock while purportedly in the trance of a demonic possession. Cotton attempts to sell an effective exorcism but circumstances reveal the girl and her family have very complicated psychological and inter-personal problems. The documentary from this point explores a numbers of mysteries: Is the girl’s so-called possession in actuality the product of abuse or mental illness? Are members of her family and people from the local town representing themselves truthfully? Most important, is she really possessed by a demon or is the video crew capturing her performance; her lie? The layers of mystery within the confines of the story are as thick as a Bayou swamp. And don’t forget the film’s mediated interaction with us, the audience. It’s only pretending to be a documentary. This is a lie horror fans have apparently now come to accept without other truthy marketing gimmicks, as would the audience of a musical or professional wrestling.
An interesting thing about The Last Exorcism in its unrehearsed documentary abstraction, it’s also an excellent piece of screen writing. The plot and the dialogue have a very sophisticated way of keeping you wondering what in Hell is going on, trust me. That being said, I don’t want to say too much. I’m docking the movie half a point on my scale for its ending. I think the story leads its characters into a very difficult moral trap. That’s the challenge of good drama and I have to say that the last two minutes feels tacked on and, well, artificial. I’ll be positive and call it the shocking last twist. I’m putting The Last Exorcism on my list as qualifying for the top 10 movies of the year. Can you believe that?