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The Unrealized Potential of 'The Last Exorcism' (2010)

by Dani Buckley 2 years ago in movie review
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In 2010 producer Eli Roth released 'The Last Exorcism' amidst the surge of popular possession movies being churned out around the same time. The documentary style film was panned by critics and helped solidify both the found-footage and possession sub-genres of horror as overdone scare fodder. But upon viewing 'The Last Exorcism' it dawned on me that the film contained great potential, spoiled only by its ending. In this article I will explore how and where this initially refreshing horror flick went so dismally wrong, and why its wasted potential is such a crushing disappointment. WARNING: spoilers ahead.

The rite begins. | Picture credit: IFC.com.

Daniel Stamm's 'The Last Exorcism' is one of those films that makes me want to tear my hair out, scream at the sky and pelt Reese's Pieces butter cup wrappers at my TV screen. And not in the nail-biting suspense sense one gets when watching a film by David Fincher or Christopher Nolan. Watching 'The Last Exorcism' filled me with sheer unbridled anguish and exasperation with the way an initially promising movie had sabotaged itself.

The film is, on the surface, your run-of-the-mill done-to-death found footage horror depicting the demonic possession of a teenage girl. The girl in this narrative is Nell (Ashley Bell) a sweet girl living with her controlling father and brother on their farm in the deep south. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is the preacher tasked with exorcising her. The film opens initially to a surprising position: it follows the life of Cotton Marcus, a cynical minister who openly admits to viewers that he has lost his faith and does showy exorcisms/conversions for monetary gain. Before we can criticize him too harshly for taking advantage of believers, it is revealed he is doing it for the sake of his ill son, whose affliction was the cause of his crisis in faith. Disillusioned with religion altogether, Marcus announces that Nell's exorcism will be his last. The film then documents the intricacies of Nell's bizarre case, with the lingering overtone that the forces within her may not be demonic after all.

The film in its premise surprised me. What was marketed as a bog-standard found footage possession movie actually turned out to have an interesting angle unseen in horror before. Patrick Fabian of 'Better Call Saul' fame plays the morally complex pastor, whose central role is a surprising one. This film plays out, for the first twenty minutes, like an ordinary documentary about a man exploiting the faithful for his own gain, too drained of his own patience with God to care.

But Marcus' character is not the only ambiguous form the movie's plot line takes. For the majority of its duration, the film adopts an intriguing air of mystery when it comes to Bell's character. Meek and mild when interacting with the film crew upon exchanging greetings, we are presented with the notion that her violent 'demonic' outbursts are little more than some form of mental illness. This suspicion is reified by Marcus' private observations, scalding the father to the filmmakers for his enforcement of faith on his children. This in and of itself would have been an interesting reverse-take on the typical possession movie blueprint, in which neurological causes are quickly ruled out in favour of the supernatural.

However, the film makes an even more interesting turn by introducing the further suspicion that Nell's father, an overbearing dogmatic man who chastises Nell for a possible relationship with a local schoolmate, is possibly abusing her, and is the cause of her outbursts. The subsequent shock revelation of Nell's pregnancy and the alluded implication that her satanic fits are actually a form of disassociated psychosis arising from repressed abuse, made me a-glow with the innovative brilliance of this movie's rejection of typical horror scares. The sick implication of incest and rape is a harrowing reality accompanied by the religious twining interwoven into the fabric of Nell's mental break. All the while the film insinuates that the sinister presence here is not the demon, identified as Abalam, thought to be dwelling within Nell, but rather the abusive father operating under the twisted guise of Christian dogma.

I was so caught up in the freshness of this concept, accompanied by two phenomenal performances by Fabian and Bell, that the movie's poor reputation melted from my mind. I lost sight of its bad press and mediocre audience reaction. Then, in a frantic and frankly rushed climax, the film unraveled all of its own hard work it had spent the last 110 minutes constructing.

After Fabian's pastor is convinced Nell's demoniacal symptoms are intrinsically linked to horrendous abuse, he and the camera crew impulsively decide to return to the farm, only to stumble upon an ongoing satanic ritual celebrating the birth of an Antichrist through the nominated vessel, Nell. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was with this ending, which was clearly spewed onto the script pages in a last-ditch effort to keep the film within the dull but enduring trend of horror movies at the time. Instead of persevering with something smart and original, 'The Last Exorcism' buckled beneath the pressure of audience expectations and delivered a ritualistic sacrifice of its own brilliance.

What makes the film's sell-out ending even more confusing is the clever, stripped-back feel of everything encountered in the film prior to that ghastly conclusion, instilling fear while keeping the cause grounded in the psychological. In the now infamous barn scene, a chained Nell contorts violently among the stacks of hay with a hauntingly blank look on her face. Bell did her own stunts for this scene, and it is remarkably chilling to say the least. The speed of her moments is enough to give you whiplash, and are so unnatural and bizarre they will make you cringe. Her famous vertical back-bend has become an iconic horror silhouette despite the film's negative press, but never once are we subjected to overtly hellish imagery of Nell crawling on walls - contrary to the film's poster - nor do we see her head swivel 360 degrees. Thus, we are able to identify the possibility that her 'possession' is indeed the result of severe psychological harm. Whichever way you look at it, this is a fate just as terrifying as any satanic invasion of the body. If not more so, because the threat is so profoundly tangible.

Instead of the film's denouement confirming Nell's abuse in a tragic yet satisfactory ending, we, the audience, were presented with a cheap final-minute sensationalist twist that turns the film's dark and intelligent tone into one no different than any other £2 DVD bargain bin horror film, riddled with jump-scares and nightgown-swathed teen aged girls. And it's a real shame, because not only is the film's initially smart take on some of the real horrors masked by religious hysteria interesting, it also posits an endearing handful of characters, which, had the abuse plot followed through, would have made the movie even more tragic.

Though we initially scoff at Marcus' monetary scheming towards vociferous believers, his motivation juxtaposes us at a crossroads, forcing us to exert empathy towards him, and even like him. He has Nell's best interests at heart, especially when uncovering the grimy truth. This makes us spur both him and his tag-along film crew along in their efforts to uncover the truth and expose the horrors occurring beneath the surface. He's an honest hero, with a matter-of-fact sense of approach and relatable failings. He's not perfect, but he's not pretending to be. This humanity is what makes Marcus an almost perfect horror protagonist - he is morally ambiguous, but his prevailing assessment and reaction to the situation at hand proves his worth, and inspires us to warm to him enough to care for his fate.

Similar in likability, but equally as emotionally perplexing is Nell. Despite Nell's demonic countenance, Bell is able to convey the likeness of an utterly sweet girl cowed by an oppressive patriarchal presence. In an early interaction with the filmmakers, Nell comments on the girl's Dr. Marten boots, seemingly awed by her unconventional fashion, which is totally at odds with Nell's own girlish dress. The filmmaker offers her the boots and we are privy to Nell's utter joy and wide-eyed gratitude at being gifted with items she clearly finds to be the epitome of 'cool', much unlike the archaic outfits she is forced to wear. This soft demeanor, later contrasted with the tirade of insults launched during the barn exorcism implies a deep psychological break - one that is both unnerving and heartbreaking to see occur within such a well-mannered girl.

The additional fact that the film goes to such lengths of highlighting Nell's innocence is another reason for the jaw to drop in awe when it turns on itself in that gaudy final reveal. Nell's incorrect phrasing of a sex act when enduring one of her fits in which Abalam is supposed to be speaking through her, leaves Marcus certain that Nell is not, in fact, possessed. Instead he is left with the unshakable fact that her trauma is manifesting as the actions of a demoniac because of her strict upbringing. Marcus even notes the impossibility, according to theoretical demonology, that a worldly demon of hell would get a phrase as renowned as 'blow job' wrong. Here there appears to be a clever and final confirmation on the precipice of the film's final act that there is no demonic force at play, but merely systematic, incestuous abuse by the caregiver Nell has been forced to trust in the absence of her doting mother. Nell's outward regurgitation of inward feelings of rage and disgust at her father's violation of her during a religious rite makes perfect sense, both within the film's context and when considering the robust attitude with which her father observes biblical law.

This scene is a direct and clever indication of Nell's innocence, and that Nell is still Nell. She is purely suffering from years of abuse. The fact that this carefully crafted scene, using considerations of demonic lore, is completely ignored and overturned by its sell-out ending is as true a tragedy as any cinematic blunder. It is perhaps the film's most overt demonstration of obliviousness for its own brilliance, and a smarting reminder of its stirring potential lying within the majority of its run-time.

What could have been an innovative and nuanced commentary on the deceiving ways in which faith can be perverted, and of its complex interplay with psychology and familial dynamics, was instead in its final moments diminished by an abrupt, desperate grab for easy scares. Perhaps the final as it was could still have been mildly chilling, had it not been for the cheesy acting by the high priest conducting the ritual, the shoddy visual effects and the absurd implication that the entire town has been plotting in cult-like fashion this entire time for Nell to produce a highly-anticipated demon baby. Hence, the whistle-stop ending is only scary for thirteen year-olds who are watching their first horror movie at a sleepover. The film, which is practically void of most horror tropes like jump-scares, is posited so that its ending feels oddly stuck-on as a last ditch-effort in the editing room. It just doesn't fit.

Despite keeping its cards expertly close to its chest throughout the film and planting seeds of twisted psychological trauma, it folds at the final hurdle. Sadly, 'The Last Exorcism' deals a bad hand of switching a compelling moral fixation for a commercial alignment with the repetitive horror releases of the time. This film could have really been something, but was simply compromised by the fulfillment of audience expectations and its lack of self-confidence in its ability to scare without a supernatural undercurrent.

The damage done to this kind-hearted girl, expressed disturbingly through demonic outbursts of rage and disassociation, are as unnerving - if not more so - than any of satanic origin. Had it been released at a time when tales of demonic possession told with tried and tested conventions were not the draw at the box office, we might have retained a reality-based conclusion that solidified the film as an underground cult classic among horror fans. What we got instead of this unsuspecting but effective psychological thriller was a film that left nothing but a stinger in the wound of unrealised potential of its initial plot point.

If you shut off the film when Fabian's Marcus leaves the house prior to his heroic u-turn, it changes the movie entirely. It may be a film void of reification, but it is ultimately an improved and less frustrating one.

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About the author

Dani Buckley

My life revolves around horror and film.

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