Making an original horror film is no easy task. As far as the genre and production companies are concerned, it's all been done before. As a result of this defeatist attitude, horror films are constantly re-made: Halloween, The Last House On The Left, and Nightmare on Elm Street to name a few. Even original ideas are often pastiches from horror films of the past. When I attended the Toronto premiere of Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism, I expected to see a version of The Exorcist in the style of The Blair Witch Project. The use of the hand-held, shaky camera borrowed from documentaries is popular in the horror genre right now; it pleases the new generation of reality-tv-obssessed, YouTube followers. Cue a demon, and you've got a cliché horror film.
However, I should have known better, because when Eli Roth (produced The Last Exorcism) has anything to do with a film, we can only expect the unexpected. Roth has been keeping spectators on their toes ever since his debut feature, Cabin Fever - gore and blood were non-stop until the end of the film, which wrapped up in humour and made light of a terrible tragedy. As an actor, Roth surprised us in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds when his character, the Bear Jew, mowed down Hitler with gunfire. In this tradition of the unexpected, The Last Exorcism did not disappoint its audience. There are plenty of unexpected twists and turns, right up until the credits roll.
The film begins with an introduction to Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a preacher who has been questioning his faith. His son was born prematurely, and Cotton depended on doctors to save his son's life, rather than the big man upstairs. Cotton Marcus is participating in this “documentary” because he wants to expose the church's practice of fraudulent exorcisms. Cotton is going to perform his last exorcism on camera to expose the truth. Fabian does a wonderful job as Cotton Marcus. He is clever, funny, and so charismatic that he can recite a passage about banana bread during his sermon, and the crowd yells 'amen'! As spectators, we warm up to Cotton almost instantly, and we're on board with whatever he wants to do, and wherever he wants to take us, including an old farm house set deep in Louisiana, to perform his last exorcism. Sure, why not?
When he arrives on the farm of Louis Sweetzer, Cotton expects to perform just another routine “exorcism” on a troubled religious fanatic. Sweetzer is certain his teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon who must be exorcized before their family suffers unimaginable tragedy. Upon arriving at the household, it is clear that nothing could have prepared Cotton and his film crew for the evil they encounter. Too late to turn back, Cotton's own beliefs are challenged when he must save Nell, and himself, before it is too late.
The Last Exorcism plays with it's audience - we're never sure whether Nell is possessed by a demon, or if she suffers from deep, psychological trauma. We must fear the unknown, and we cannot be sure of anything. The film is not just another re-hash of The Exorcist, where we could take comfort in the fact that Ragan was undoubtedly possessed, and confined to her room when the going got tough. Nell is not chained to her bed - she is able to roam free around the farm. Director Stamm did a great job of directing his cast - Ashley Bell's ability to contort her own body, and bend backward without the help of computer-graphic imaging is astounding and frightening on it's own.
The Last Exorcism will keep you engaged until the very end - and the ending itself will shock, confuse, and surprise you (would you expect anything different from Eli Roth)? During the Q&A with the cast after the film, Roth stated that it was important for the film to end (a sequel is not in the works), and discussion to begin. The film definitely lends itself to discussion and further questioning, even of your own faith. Perhaps in God and the Devil, but certainly in the horror genre and the inventive approach of The Last Exorcism.