An exorcise in banality

Article Published: Sep. 2, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
An exorcise in banality

Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, Louis Herthum and Caleb Landry Jones star in The Last Exorcism.

David Stamm's The Last Exorcism is the horror movie that almost could.

In fact, it's full of almosts - almost scary, almost funny, almost original and almost clever.

Despite an effective cast and a brooding creepiness, Exorcism ultimately offers nothing new to the horror subgenre.

Basically a mash-up of conventional horror tricks, Exorcism loses the struggle with its own demons, teetering on the brink of originality but never leaving the audience-friendly safe zone.
It starts promising enough. In the now standard faux-documentary style, we meet the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian, HBO's Big Love), a suave and charismatic preacher in Baton Rouge, La.

Having spread the word since childhood, Marcus has since grown jaded in his profession - and faith - even proving he can rile up a congregation by spouting absolute nonsense in place of a sermon, in one instance a banana bread recipe. The crowd goes wild.

As Marcus and his wife admit to the documentary crew, he's a rousing entertainer by trade, enjoying every minute of it.

Oh, and he also performs exorcisms, but is quick to admit they're no more than a combination of parlor tricks and suggestion. If people truly believe their demons are being exorcized, he reasons, they gain some solace. He's quick to admit he doesn't even believe in demons, but finds no moral qualms in granting people peace of mind, and for a price.

But all that changed with the premature birth of his son and a tragic incident in which a child died during another preacher's exorcism. Vowing to go straight, Marcus hires a film crew to document him exposing exorcisms as fraudulent and dangerous, picking a case at random to demonstrate.
That case takes them to the Louisiana backwoods, home of the creepy-as-all-hell Sweetzer family.

The family patriarch, Louis (Louis Herthum, In the Electric Mist), is an alcoholic, bible-thumping widower who believes his daughter, the sweet and shy Nell (Ashley Bell, Showtime's United States of Tara), is possessed, due to the nightly, gruesome slaying of his livestock. Nell's brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones, No Country for Old Men), is a caustic, threatening young fellow who makes it obvious his family bears a nasty little secret.

Nonetheless, the self-assured Marcus goes through the motions, performing an effectively staged exorcism with all his smoke and mirrors - self-boiling water, a hidden speaker system blaring spooky noises, a shaking bed, rumbling picture frames and, the coup de grace, a dry-ice loaded crucifix that smokes after absorbing the so-called evil spirit.

The family's more than grateful, but Marcus and company realize something's amiss when a catatonic Nell appears in his motel room later that night. When a trip to the hospital reveals she's pregnant, all signs point to sexual and psychological abuse - a convincing conclusion, given the severely twisted nature of her family, and a reasonable explanation for all the strange goings-on.

Marcus and the film crew return to the farm, determined to save Nell from future abuse, but, as the situation grows progressively weirder, they soon learn things aren't quite as they seem.

It's a compelling setup, promising a hint of originality in a tired collection of subgenres - exorcism movies, faux documentaries as "found footage," and so on - but it seems director Stamm (A Necessary Death) and collaborating writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland (Mail Order Wife) are unwilling to follow through.

For one, they attempt to deliver cheap make-you-jump scares with a suspense-building soundtrack, consciously ignoring the fact Exorcism is supposed to be a documentary composed of found, unedited footage.

Though kudos can be given for its understated special effects, enough already with the standard possessed girl routine. It's the same old song and neck-contorting dance - bending in all sorts of unnatural directions, spider-like movements and, of course, the obligatory vomit.

After the implied horrors and the outright disturbing nature of the Sweetzer family itself, these highly advertised sequences seem no more than an after-thought.

The movie's at its scariest when it lets audience members use their imagination, mulling the horrors that may have occurred off screen - like when the camera abruptly shuts off and powers back on to an eerie tableau, conveying disorientation and actual suspense.

The most successful horror filmmakers know it's not what you see that's scary, but rather what you don't see - think Ridley Scott's Alien or Robert Wise's original The Haunting.

And Exorcism's cop-out ending is a shining case in point. In fact, the last five minutes feel like they were crudely tacked on with Elmer's Glue and a stapler, ruining any chance of a thoughtful resolution, or lack thereof.

It's as if Stamm and company were on the verge of something original and, dare say, daring, but opted for a typical Hollywood horror ending. Come to think of it, that's the scary part.

The Last Exorcism, rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.

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