Friday, August 27, 2010

'The Last Exorcism' all but ruined by ending

The Last Exorcism (2010)
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, and Louis Herthum
Director: Daniel Stamm
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A professional minister and exorcist who has lost his faith in God (Fabian) cooperates with the making a documentary intended to expose exorcists and exorcisms as the frauds they are. However, with a two-person film crew in tow, he comes face to face with a girl (Bell) who may truly be possessed by a demon.

"The Last Exorcism" is, for most of its running time, a well-executed horror film in the "Paranormal" or "The Blair Witch Project" mode. The documentary feel is scrupulously maintained, and there's nothing shown in the film that couldn't have been captured by the camera carried by the documentary filmmaker. The script is lean, tightly focused, and it sets up everything that occurs in the picture nicely.

The film also benefits from a main character, Reverend Cotton Marcus, who, despite admitting up front to having turned from preacher to conman and trickster, is a sympathetic throughout. Even better, Cotton Marcus is a character who has a conscience and a heart--and perhaps more faith left in God than he realizes--and he tries his best to help a young girl in serious trouble, first exploring every possible logical explanation for her condition... and ultimately exploring supernatural ones. He transformation from huckster to hero that Marcus undergoes makes him a character that the audience is rooting for more strongly than most horror movie characters. Of course, it helps immensely that Patrick Fabian is perfectly cast in the part.

Also perfectly cast is Ashley Bell. She's in her mid-20s, but she nonetheless passes just fine as the 16-year-old she is playing. She also shows that maybe she is being wasted in the primarily voice acting roles she's played up to this point, as she is fabulous as Nell, being equally sweet, sinister, or absolutely bat-shit crazy depending on what is called for vis-a-vis portraying a girl who might be demonically possessed. Louis Herthum as her deeply Christian father is likewise excellent in his part, seeming likeable but with just enough of an edge that the audience can buy into the suspicions that start to form around him halfway through the film.

Unfortunately, all that is good about "The Last Exorcism" is undermined by its absolutely awful ending. It's an ending that's carefully set up as the film unfolds, and it's to be expected given the genre and the general tend for horror movies to be home to various degrees of irony and "poetic justice", but in this specific case the ending destroys the carefully constructed illusion that we're watching a documentary. As the end credits start to roll, even the most unquestioning and generous-minded viewer will be asking with some irritation, "Given what just happened... who made the movie?"

I don't know if this was the filmmakers intent, but what they ended up doing was the modern-day equavenent of the ending on "The Mark of the Vampire" or "The Ghoul" where the 1930s filmmakers ended their films by reassuring audiences that there is no such thing as the supernatural. With "The Last Exorcism," the filmmakers do the same by completely destroying the pretense that everything we've just seen unfold on film was just so much make-believe, reassuring us that there is no such thing as the supernatural. However, in the case of the classic horror films, the entirety of what had been built up was not swept away as it is here.

If "The Last Exorcism" has been five-ten minutes shorter and/or given an ending that was in keeping with the illusion of reality the film had set up--even if that ending involved demons taking on physical form--this could have been a great horror movie. Instead, it ends up barely rating as average.

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