Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Last Exorcism Review: Snatching Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

Rather than being a "normal" review, this article is going to revolve around the final act of The Last Exorcism and the question of how to resolve plots in general, so if you have any plans on watching the movie without spoilers, this might be a good place to stop reading until you do so.

A word or several first on the film itself, I find it difficult to recommend The Last Exorcist despite thoroughly enjoying the majority of the movie. The acting is competent and in the case of the lead, surprisingly excellent. The direction is quietly expressive, the plot appears to be a fresh take on a tired genre and there are both scares and an unsettling creepy atmosphere throughout.

In the light of the above, it may seem that the movie should be recommended on that basis alone, surely a weak final act can't wipe out the positives completely? Watching a movie is undoubtedly about the experience of the journey, not just the culmination of the plot?

Year: 2010
Genre: Horror

Reverend Marcus (a standout performance by Patrick Fabian) is a troubled "exorcist" who experiences a loss of faith and decides to co-operate with a two-person documentary crew to help debunk the notion of exorcism and his own practice of it, in order to prevent accidental harm apparently risked during some procedures. The movies does excellent setting a fresh tone for the by-now tired format and moves efficiently along from effective character shading to the main plot, that of a backwoods farmer named Louis (another surprisingly good performance, this time by Louis Herthum) who believes his daughter has been possessed, perhaps by the Devil himself.

The documentary crew find the local area to be rife with speculation over UFO crash sites, witches and a dark 'cult'. Driving closer to the isolated home, they find Louis' son, Caleb, to be hostile and a complex family situation where the death of Louis' wife has caused him to turn to religion and alcohol, isolating his two children to an extreme degree. Marcus uses his bag tricks to perform a sham exorcism, dispenses some sound advice and the crew take their leave to a motel.

Here the movie switches up a few gears as the daughter, Nell, appears at the motel apparently in the grip of a demon possession. As the audience, we see clearly what we can reasonably perceive to be the direction of the movie, where the charismatic but disillusioned Reverend is forced to confront a genuine possession. However, the fresh tone, good performances and intriguing hints of more-complex-than-average backstory means that this realization is not negative in the slightest, at this stage  the movie shows great promise.

For the middle act, this promise is more than lived up to. Drawn back into Nell's predicament, the crew have to handle Louis unwillingness to seek medical help, increasingly terrifying behavior from Nell and well-woven developments regarding an unsuspected pregnancy, possible incestuous abuse and an apparently helpful local priest.

This keeps the momentum of the plot moving while keeping things interesting, and the affair appears to be heading into a barnstorming finale when an impromptu second exorcism is begun in the barn with a genuinely frightening atmosphere, classic body contortions and fun, and enjoyable, intelligent word-play between demon and priest. It hits all the classic tropes of the exorcism sub-genre, but does so a fresh manner and the sketched-in backstories and charismatic performance by Fabian pay off well.

Sadly, the high-point of the film before it jumps the shark

However, this is where the movie starts flying off the rails, painfully managing to snatch defeat into it's grasp at the home stretch. The first twist is somewhat anti-climatic, but still reasonable. Seizing upon a strange turn of phrase by the demon (blowing job rather than blow-job), Reverend Marcus appears to force Nell to admit that she not possessed but rather struggling to deal with her isolation after her mother's death and the guilt and confused feelings aroused by a secret affair with a local boy. The documentary crew then take their leave after leaving a damaged family with some hope of healing themselves after a traumatic experience.

Anti-climatic, but still satisfying to some degree, it could have been written off as a weaker third act if the movie hadn't then unleashed a second nonsensical twist. when stopping by the supposed father of Nell's baby, and finding him to be gay and never having slept with Nell, as well casting doubts on the apparently friendly local priest, the crew return to the family home. Here, a throw-away line, very early in the movie, about a dark cult operating in the local provides us with the filmiest of contexts for what's to follow.

The cult has apparently impregnated Nell with some sort of demon/Devil/alien/unknown baby with Louis tied up as she gives birth, and then the three-person crew all meet their doom. The end.

Yes, a cult that was mentioned once with absolutely no context, no stated motivation, no development over the course of the previous 2 hours, is the final twist. And it makes no sense when re-watching the movie. It adds nothing to the movie in terms of drama, themes or motifs. It is just.... pointless.

For this pointlessness, I award this movie 3/10 in sheer irritation. 

On Final Act Twists

Final act twists comes in many forms but to be successful they have to serve some purpose. An unexpected death can serve as a epilogue, prompting reflections on deeper themes. A 'mind-screw' twist, ala Fight Club, should also shine light on proceeding events, reinforce underlying themes and feel organic. A well executed 'Judas' twist, i.e. The classic it-was-you-behind-the-big-bag-all-along trope, should up the dramatic stakes and provide emotional resonance.
The only reasonable exceptions to these rules is if the movie itself is content to through the logic and thematic rule-book out the window in the search for pure fun or shameless thrills. The various twists and turns of the Mission:Impossible films make very little sense, but taken in the context of what those movies are trying to achieve, it detracts very little from the experience. A movie like The Last Exorcism however goes out of it's way to establish a fresher more immediately real feel than a thrill-ride horror movie like The Cabin In The Woods (which incidentally still handled it's own final act twists excellently). If you establish a tone for your world, you need to live in it.

A superb example of a misused twist ending was the original ending of Clerks, the debut film by Kevin Smith. A talky, lazily smart look at slacker culture, the abrupt shooting of the protagonist before a fade-to-black would have soured the taste of an otherwise superb movie without serving any deeper purpose. Thankfully, it was reshot and lives only as a humorous story amongst many others in Kevin Smith's podcasts and DVD's.

The final act of The Last Exorcism serve no purpose beyond a desire to move the film in a different direction. The cult comes out of the blue, with only a throwaway line at the beginning providing meager and insufficient context. No deeper themes or motifs tie in with the twist. It sheds no light on motivations of any characters in earlier acts.

Worse of all, unlike Fight Club where the twist rewards repeat watchings by neatly tying up dangling scenes and providing emotional and logical context, The Last Exorcism suffers horribly by making absolutely no sense when rewatched in the context of the final act.

Basic questions are left unanswered, not least, what the hell was going on? A cult was worshiping... the devil? A demon? Was the Nell possessed by the entity or simply carrying it's child? Was she aware?

Why the need for the whole possessed act? If we accept that the father wrote to the Reverend for an exorcism out of desperation and ignorance, and Caleb reacted in a hostile manner because he was a member of the cult, why did the girl play up being possessed at all? If the intention was to get rid of the three interlopers, which is made pretty clear by the pretense that it was all repressed guilt over a dalliance with a local boy, why follow the crew to the hotel room and keep them there when they were about to leave with the father satisfied that the demon had been exorcised? If the intention was to keep the crew around to murder them, as suggested by the drawing of their dead bodies, why attempt to mollify them and send them away hours before the birth of the demon/devil/unknown child? If Nell is trying to fight against her 'possession', if she is possessed which is left completely unclear, why does she appear to reassure them while normal and stalk them while possessed?

Why does Nell stab her brother in the mouth? Who is the male voice she is talking to when locked alone in her room? Do the cult want the crew to be sacrificed? Do they want them to leave?

What the fuck is going on?

The Last Exorcist took a superb basic premise, above-average performances and a good marriage between scene-to-scene unpredictability and tension and threw all away in pursuit of... something.

They truly managed to salvage a nonsensical poor movie out of the brink of what could have been anything between a respectable interesting take on a faux-docu exorcist movie to modern horror classic.


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