Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010) [Blu-Ray review]

 The Film
The exorcism film has been making a come back recently. In my review for The Rite, the most recent of them, I named a number of others. Luckily for us, there's a rather good exorcism film that has just become available on DVD and Blu Ray

The Last Exorcism does a great job of avoiding more of the clichés common to the genre than any of the other films released in at least a decade. When it was released, most of the less than favorable opinions about the film were related to it being a story told with in the cinema verité style. Since The Blair Witch Project, American cinema has gotten more faux-documentaries than we'd had in the the entire history of cinema. Many movie goers are still considering it a gimmick or a cheap attempt to trick audiences. This film doesn't take the concept to the extreme of Paranormal Activity or Paranormal Activity 2 (you can find my reviews for the first of those films here, and for the sequel here).

It manages not to stretch the bounds of acceptability in it's style, specifically by putting a documentary at the middle of it's narrative. Cotton Marcus is a preacher of the fire and brim stone, devil's coming to take your soul, demons are at your door step, backwoods exorcism variety. The thing is, for Reverend Marcus, it's become a sham. It's a show, and Cotton Marcus has been making a decent living because he is an exceptional showman. But, for a few very understandable reasons which are perfectly plausible and sympathetic, his conscience makes it unable for him to continue this line of work. More than that, he's decided he wants to expose exorcism for the sham it is, so that no one else is taken in by the same kind of manipulation. That's where the documentary comes in. Reverend Marcus picks one of the many requests he receives to perform an exorcism, and takes two documentary film makers with him. The film is really about the good Reverend, and the original title of the script was actually Cotton.

This film is taken to a level just beyond fun B film by both it's screenplay and it's casting. The screenplay gives the film and the audience enough respect to spend a good deal of time with it's characters and to make them a bit more than archetypes. The screenplay can also be credited for the film straying away from many of the clichés of exorcism films, and even when it is presenting something that could be a cliché, it does it in an interesting and innovative enough way that it doesn't jump out saying, "you've seen this a million times before." And because the characters are well enough established and real enough, when the story starts to take it's big turn, the viewer is sympathetic enough that we're more interested in what they're going through and how they're reacting that we're no longer objective in our perspective of the events we're being presented with. Considering the nature of the material an exorcism film is concerned with, being able to pull that off is important, and this film deserves credit for the degree of success it achieves in doing so, much because of the screenplay. The commentaries and extra features suggest that a lot of the dialogue is improvised, but the narrative structure of the screenplay is exceptional.

The other part of making a film like this believable, is the cast. Of course, the ability of the actors in any film is one of the keys to it's success, but especially in a film dealing with subjects like exorcism, demons, gods, angels, etc., if the cast isn't up to the job, it's obvious, and it hurts the film more severely than one dealing with less fantastic material. Patrick Fabian plays Cotton Marcus, the film's central character. He seems to have done quite a bit of television work. He absolutely kills it. Fabian plays Cotton Marcus as someone who is a showman, and a con artist, but in part because of what he's doing, but even more due to Fabian's acting, we completely believe that he is also a good man who is trying to figure out the right thing to do. The beginning involves a few scenes of Cotton giving sermons that absolutely sell the character and sell the idea that he is willing to make this documentary and why. It also tells the audience exactly how this man has been able to continue to go around doing exorcisms, giving sermons and make a living doing it. There are just small things he does along the way that make the character, who could have been thoroughly disgusting, into a guy who is really likable and that you really feel for as the film progresses. He absolutely blows this film out of the water. I can't say enough about how good he is.

Ashley Bell plays Nell Sweetzer, and when the film begins, her character is an earnestly sweet, good hearted and absolutely lovable girl, and if anyone watching this film doesn't fall in love with her, they are empty, hard people. As the film progresses, the change that comes over her is completely believable, with no make-up and only one very small special effects piece. She pulls off a more effective and believable version of a girl who is either completely insane or possessed than so many other actors who had the benefit of special effects, and a more traditional narrative format which could use photographic composition and lighting to help create tension. Some of the stuff she does in this film is pretty spectacular. Ashley Bell is is an extremely talented young actor.

Daniel Stamm has managed to take a film that should have been much more provincial and much more silly and stupid and kept it focused on the characters and making the scares and the action anchored in what's going on with the characters. In doing so, he's taken the kind of silly B movie so many exorcism films become and made it a very solid thriller and character drama that happens to have some extremely creepy and scary at moments. And, he's managed to make a PG-13 horror film that is largely successful in it's aims. There's a raging debate in the horror community between one side that claims a decent horror film would never qualify for a PG-13 rating, and the other side that claims the rating doesn't matter as much as the quality of the actual film. Watering a film down in a way that hurts it's original intent isn't something I'd endorse. At the same time, this film is an example of the fact that a horror film can be well made, get some good creepy scares in and still qualify for PG-13.

The ending of the film caused quite a bit of controversy with the movie going public. There is very little middle ground among movie goers when it comes to their opinions about the ending of the film. Personally, I enjoyed the ending of the film, and unlike those who feel the ending isn't consistent with the rest of the film, to my mind, it's a great ending that is more consistent with the rest of the film than any other that has been suggested.

Transfer and Special Features:

The transfer quality on the Blu Ray is excellent. There's an argument to be made that having a picture with deep blacks and a richness of color isn't as important for a faux-documentary style film, but I'd suggest it's as least as important, if not more so since the narrative style is all about trying to convince the audience that what they are watching is real, and happening in front of the camera as they watch it. Either way, it's a good transfer that looks great in hi-def, and is often the case these days, it's probably closer to what the film makers actually had in mind than the way it's presented in theaters.

There are oodles of extra content on the disc as well. There's a producers commentary with Eli Roth, Eric Newmann and Thomas A. Bliss. I haven't listened to this one yet, but I'm expecting it to be at least entertaining, if not all that informative. No matter what your opinion about Eli Roth, it can't be said that the guy isn't enthusiastic about movies and doesn't love talking about them. I've enjoyed all of his previous commentary tracks.

There's also a commentary track with the director Daniel Stamm, and the three actors central to the films story. Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell and Louis Herthem. Although it borders on a little too sticky sweet, it's clear the actors and director enjoyed working on the film and that Stamm had put a considerable amount of thought into things before the filming started. It was also interesting to hear how much of the film was derived from improvisation and the actors contributions.

The rest of the extras strike me as being directly out of the Eli Roth playbook for keeping the William Castle legacy alive. There's a commentary track with a haunting victim and "deliverance" minister and a clinical psychologist. I honestly don't know what to make of it. Is this a straightforward marketing ploy, with actors having been hired to record this commentary or are these actually people who believe this as fully as they seem to? And if they are hired or they are sincere, I'm not sure what I make of the questions that follow that either. It's an inspired piece of marketing though, no matter what else is or isn't true of it.

The other example of the William Castle-esque maneuvers on Eli Roth's part is a documentary about possession and demonology. The option directly preceding it is a "protection prayer" which the documentary suggests be said before watching the documentary, because the doc contains "real demonic voices," and the playing of these voices can invite demonic forces to attempt to make contact with the viewer. I think the participants in the documentary are the same as the participants in the "haunting" commentary. Interesting and fun stuff, from a variety of perspectives.

Then there's a very typical, straightforward "making of" documentary that isn't all that informative or entertaining because of just how typical it is for a somewhat atypical movie and on a disc with a few atypical extras. There are also trailers for this film and a few other Lionsgate releases. 

Final Verdict

I enjoyed the film a great deal. Seeing it a second time has given me a different perspective on it, and it didn't take anything away from the film at all. It may in fact have made it even more interesting and given me more respect for it because it becomes clear how much discipline went into creating it. Because of the subject matter and the way the film plays out generally, it's definitely not for everyone. If you're the unfortunate kind of person who can't watch a film based on it's own narrative and it's own reality, this might not be for you. In other words, the devout believer may not be comfortable with this film, and the devout atheist may not be comfortable with it either. But, if you can just enjoy a film for it's own merits and enjoy a good horror film, this is a very good one that is worth checking out.

The Blu Ray is put together very well. There are a couple of interesting and entertaining extras, the picture and audio are great, and there is a version available that comes with the Blu Ray, a DVD and a digital copy. I can't sneeze at a three commentary disc, especially when one of them is as unusual as the "formerly haunted" version. My only suggestion to Lionsgate and/or Eli Roth and company would be to put a few more extras that treat the subject matter as real on the disc. With the two it has now, it's just kind of unusual and there's no real sense of committal to trying to play with the audience this way. All in all, good stuff.

 The Last Exorcism at The Bleed For It store:


Other Possession Films Mentioned:

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