Whether you’ve grown tired or more intrigued by the faux-documentaries of late (popularized and polarized by The Blair Witch Project and continuing with films like Cloverfield and [REC] or the American Quarantine) The Last Exorcism starts with a promising first act and I’d recommend the first half hour be required viewing for pastors. Sadly, the second act flails aimlessly to maintain viewer interest, and the third act wind ups validating the formulaic contrivance people accuse this cinematic style of consistently falling prey to.
The most frightening part of the film is the setup, wherein we are introduced to the troubled evangelical minister Cotton Marcus. Patrick Fabian is perfectly cast in this role as he evinces both natural charisma and personal disenchantment. A preacher’s kid who entered the ministry at ten years old, viewers are quickly shown how he has grown into a reality where he has no true faith, and treats his ministerial role as merely:
entertainer and showman
After reading about accidental deaths during exorcism, Cotton now wishes to debunk the idea of exorcism which lets you understand why cameras are capturing the event.
The most chilling moment – in my mind – is when this talented orator bets the cameraman he can get his congregation just as excited by talking about banana bread as when he extols Jesus. He succeeds, and as his eyes slide toward the camera it’s more troubling than the later scene in the film when a blank, seemingly possessed girl gives a sickening smile to the lens. I’m not sure which glance is more haunting or demonic.
Seeing this film with a pastor friend, I found myself deeply sad for Cotton while he sat their visibly shaking with frustration, livid that this character could be manipulating these people with no belief of his own. It raised a few questions pastors should ask themselves;
Are you “contextualizing” the biblical message, or pandering by providing entertainment instead of preaching the gospel? (Some creative, even prop-driven pastors seem more like Criss Angel than shepherd leader.)
Are you following a family legacy or community tradition, or do you truly own what you preach in your own heart? (If not, your passion and faith will surely erode like Cottons.)
Is this what the community surrounding your church believes you’re about? (and, if so, what might you do to demonstrate otherwise?)
Cotton even uses an old argument for the “success” of exorcism, citing that people believe they’re possessed in their mind and the ritual of exorcism simply helps them psychologically process that they’ve been “freed”. It’s an argument that shows up in the 1973 classic Exorcist film, older than the hills and yet a tune that – as we clearly see – hasn’t changed. This is tragic, as earlier in the film he points to the real argument that rational Americans can’t claim belief in the God of the Bible unless we believe in the present reality of demons and possession… because Jesus himself was an exorcist. The viewer painfully understands that as Cotton has forsaken belief in one, he’s necessarily denied belief in the other.
Naturally, the film proceeds to send Cotton on a “last exorcism” that challenges his emerging conceptions and the fortitude of the filmmakers. This might have played out beautifully, but devolves from faux documentary to mockumentary… a parody of breathless, running shaky-cams we’ve seen a hundred times before and an ending so bad it brought to mind this classic farce from the golden age of William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine: The Devil’s Rain.
NOTE: This has to be one of the most awesome/bad trailers in the history of ever.
The final moments are so telegraphed that audience we were with yawned, started checking their watches and putting on their coats. It’s a shame the ending is so forgettable that people are writing stupid articles about the resurgence of demon/possession movies and so missing the point. It’s totally trendy to suggest that present day fears of religious fundamentalism, fanaticism and even terrorism have brought these ideas back to the horror genre. What these articles fail to address is that a movie like this ultimately isn’t suggesting that religious fundamentalism and churchy nutjobs are dangerous because they’re so deluded. It demonstrates the otherworldly concerns they have DO exist at some level we’re denying.
There is a great 2001 film starring (and directed by) Bill Paxton called Frailty that deals with unbelief, demons and God in a very striking fashion that succeeds where The Last Exorcism fails. What’s amazing is that viewers come away from its very clear ending suggesting there is ambiguity regarding the reality of the supernatural. In his commentary, the film’s screenwriter sees this as laughable. The notion that he set out to capture with his film was that the only thing scarier than a religious fanatic was the possibility… that they might be right. Last Exorcism‘s producer Eli Roth has some fascinating (shockingly faith-based) things to say about the ending of this latest exorcism film, so if you’re not afraid of spoilers check it out. After reading this, it redeemed their intended direction a bit for me, but still falls short as good filmmaking.
It’s not unusual that movies about demons and possession are put in different contexts based on the decade and circumstances of culture. However, this doesn’t mean they’re just metaphors for these cultural fears; it might just as easily mean they permeate our existence through all these decades and prey on our fears and rationalizations of each era, reflected in our art as it imitates life. For better movies dealing with exorcism, I’d suggest the original or the recent Paranormal Activity.
However, if you findLast Exorcism on your Netflix streaming, the first 20-30 minutes are worth a look.