JUNE 24, 2010
Don't read this review. Don't read anyone else's either. Don't watch a trailer, don't read whatever articles have been written on the film... just go in blind.
That is the advice I wish I could give to everyone before they see The Last Exorcism, but I know it would be a fruitless plea. I happened to luck out - as a rule I almost never watch trailers online, and the complete lack of horror films in theaters as of late meant I didn't see one in theaters either. Nor have I followed much about the film's production; I only recently discovered it was a "documentary" type film, and the original title (Cotton) was deemed too vague, which I have to agree with because I didn't even know it was about exorcism until the new title was announced.
But you're probably ignoring me, and still reading, so let me say that I really f-ing dug the flick, and I'll try to be as spoiler-free as possible.
Apart from a blank slate (which I think is always the best way to watch a movie, it's just almost impossible to do most of the time), what I really liked about the film is that it kept the mystery of whether she was possessed or just mentally disturbed for an impressively long time. It's the same thing I liked about Emily Rose, but the in your face approach of the "documentary" allows for more scares than that film had. There's a bit about halfway through the film (seen partially in the trailer) where they find the girl on top of her bureau, and it's precisely the type of scene that made me glad that I never saw the trailer (I just watched it now, as I started writing the review), because I had no idea where she was going to pop up, and since the camera had such a narrow field of vision, there was never as much of a frame of the scene that I wasn't tensed, prepared for the inevitable reveal. Because not only is it a scare when they do finally find her with the camera, but it continues to be scary because you're still not sure what she's going to do. When Michael Myers pops into the frame, you know he's going to stab someone. But with Nell - we have no idea if she's going to Regan out and start crawling on the ceiling, or just shriek and lash out like a crazy person. Or just smile creepily at the camera.
I also enjoyed the humorous introduction to the main character, Cotton. He's a preacher, and doesn't really believe in ghosts and such. When he does exorcisms, he freely admits (to the documentary team) that it's all staged, and yet Patrick Fabian is so engaging and likable in the role, you will almost cheer him on as he swindles these folks. If he were a less capable actor, Cotton would come off as a total scumbag. And even when things start to go south, the filmmakers find moments of levity, particularly when the doc team finds a drawing depicting their deaths ("I'm not comfortable staying somewhere where someone wants to chop off my head").
Back to the acting, I thought it was pretty great across the board. The biggest problem some of these verité films suffer from is a few unnatural actors (in fact, one of the documentarians is played by actress Iris Bahr, who appeared in Poughkeepsie Tapes, one of the biggest offenders of this issue), but I bought everyone in their roles, even actors I recognized (the brother, for example, was on Friday Night Lights during Season 3).
Which brings me to one of the two quibbles I had with the film. For a "documentary", it really doesn't feel like one a lot of the time. Director Daniel Stramm sometimes cuts to angles that couldn't possibly be achieved in real time with a single camera, and other times cuts to reactions that the character of the cameraman wouldn't logically film. For example, during one of the "freak out" scenes, the girl (or the demon) twists her body in an unnatural way, and then we see Cotton's reaction. Who the hell would film him (or ANYTHING else) when a girl is pretzel-ing right in front of their eyes? It's the first time I can think of where instead of wondering why the characters were still filming these things, I was wondering why they WEREN'T.
My other concern was the ending. I'm not going to spoil it, but it's very abrupt, leaving at least one major character's final moments completely obscured. A large number of characters seem to disappear into thin air as well, and it's never quite clear what certain characters were trying to achieve. It works as a "holy shit this has all gone to hell" sequence, not unlike Micah's off-screen fate in Paranormal Activity, but it still feels very rushed and incomplete. I think some of the usual on-screen text (like, "So and so's body was never found" or whatever) would have helped, instead of just going right from the final scare (which is AWESOME) to the end credits.
The PG-13 rating is something I want to address. In short - if I didn't hear about it beforehand (producer Eli Roth was tweeting about it today, rightfully pointing out several PG-13 horror films that were scary, including The Ring and "Actually PG But Would Be PG-13 Today" Jaws), I would have assumed it was R. Not that it's particularly gory (though animal lovers might argue) or even violent, but there are at least two scenes that are just plain INTENSE, and there have been instances in the past where a film got an R just for that. It also deals with some heavy subject matter that's not exactly teen-friendly. Rest assured, I've seen R rated films that are far less "R"-y (there's a word) than this one, and I honestly believe them when they say that nothing was cut, and that the MPAA simply "got it" for once and delivered a rating that made sense. As Eli said before the film, if a film is R, it should be full blown R, and I think die-hard horror fans would be more disappointed if they went into the film expecting something hardcore. Besides, it's not too hard to guess that Lionsgate is looking to draw in the Paranormal crowd, and that film was R, so there would be no reason for them to cut it for a PG-13.
I don't expect the film to be universally loved (you know, like every horror movie ever made). In fact I suspect I may be in the minority for liking it; a few of the other horror site folks I talked to afterward didn't like it much. And I even agreed with some of their criticisms, but didn't feel they hurt the movie for me. I think it works as a unique take on the possession/exorcism type film, and delivers a number of good scares, and surprisingly strong performances from characters you will come to care about (I could have used a bit more character development for the two documentary folks though; I can't even remember the camera guy's name). Plus it's never boring, and it keeps you guessing right to its final moments. And unlike just about every other horror movie I've watched in the past week or so, I never felt like my intelligence was being insulted, yet it was also refreshingly simple, something anyone who has suffered through the often incoherent Exorcist sequels should appreciate.
I just hope you're reading this after you've seen it for yourself. The movie doesn't come out for another two months - I really dread hearing "Man, you overhyped this movie!" No, a couple of hours ago I saw a movie that I knew almost nothing about and I really liked it. Hopefully you will too.
What say you?