Thursday, August 26, 2010

The unexpected chills of 'The Last Exorcism'

Before a recent preview screening of The Last Exorcism, a surprisingly taut new horror film, two representatives from a local paranormal society spoke about their experiences observing the fine art of banishing demons. Their take: Many exorcisms prove to be shams; at least one they knew of seemed distressingly real.

When they took questions from the audience, someone toward the rear of the auditorium began with a declaration of belief in “God, Satan and what-not,’’ surely one of more colloquial ways of expressing one’s belief in the fundamental forces thought to grapple for supremacy in the cosmos.

“God, Satan and what-not?”

How about “Good, evil, and whatever, man?”

Given the palpable nature of such forces, the questioner continued, how did these investigators of all things paranormal find the courage to put their souls at risk?

“Someone’s got to do it,’’ responded one of the investigators.

“Why?” I thought to myself, believing that there are better ways to spend one’s time, say trying to find an explanation for those lost socks that keep vanishing in the dryer.

One also might watch The Last Exorcism, which – as far as contemporary horror movies go—beats most of what’s around. OK, I’m straining for a transition here, but aren’t you glad to add “God, Satan and what-not” to your philosophical vocabulary?

Director Daniel Stamm fulfills many of the requirements of the increasingly popular faux documentary genre, adding sprinkles of humor, an acceptable quota of nervous, handheld camera work and a fair amount of creepiness. The Last Exorcism lacks the novelty of a picture such as the trend-setting Blair Witch Project, but it compensates with an unexpected approach to its subject.

To begin with, this exorcism doesn’t involve the Roman Catholic Church, a choice that should come as a relief to those who are sick of seeing Catholicism used as a platform for horror. But that’s only the first in a series of daring choices.

Consider also that the central character, Preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), is a self-proclaimed fraud whose evangelism has more to do with business than belief. Marcus thinks of himself as a “performer,” and he’s good at it. He agrees to conduct an exorcism – his last -- for the movie’s two-person documentary crew so that he can expose a spiritual con game he's perpetrated many times before. He wants to out himself, perhaps to ease a nagging conscience and make himself a better man.

With crew in tow, Marcus travels to the Louisiana home of a stern, believing widower (Louis Herthum) who says that his daughter Nell (Ashely Bell) has been possessed.

When the crew arrives, Nell’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) tries to warn them off. I won’t tell you more, except to note that the movie’s “paranormal “ events – staged at first by a cunning Marcus -- soon prove to be more than a charlatan’s cheap tricks.

The cast for this low-budget chiller is exceptionally good. Fabian is entertainingly persuasive as a preacher who has been conning people since was a little kid, inheriting the religion business from his father. And Bell’s increasingly unhinged performance as Nell proves seriously unnerving.

Stamm also makes telling use of Louisiana locations, using their damp impoverishment to establish a credibly eerie environment, and he has fun lifting the veil on the tricks Marcus uses to simulate exorcism, a segment of the movie that also serves as a witty expose of movie horror, which (almost by definition) constitutes another form of con. 

To bolster the environment of realism, the script pays homage to reason: At one point, Marcus suggests that Nell receive psychological help. He begins to suspect that there’s something radically wrong with her, although demonic possession isn’t high on his list of possible diagnoses. Marcus is willing to dispense with mumbo jumbo, and make a sincere effort to help the girl.

Now, The Last Exorcism is not without problems. As near as I could tell, the faux documentary gimmick was not consistently maintained, resulting in a couple of unaccountable shifts in point of view. But the movie manages to hold us in its grip right up to an ending that, alas, proves abrupt and disappointing. Too bad. This one gets awfully close to the finish line before tripping.

One more thing: The preview screening was preceded by a filmed introduction from producer Eli Roth, who directed the Hostel movies and who has become a brand name in gory contemporary horror. Roth encourages the audience to spread the word about The Last Exorcism. I could have done without the self-promoting intro.

The Last Exorcism, by the way, is considerably less gore-driven than Roth’s movies, so much so that the movie has been awarded a PG-13 rating.

Alternately funny and creepy, The Last Exorcism is one of those movies that exceed expectation, which may be as good as it gets in these waning days of summer.

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