Once again, America has taken a look at the latest revisionist fairy tale and sighed a collective, “Why?” JACK THE GIANT SLAYER flopped at the box-office in its opening weekend, despite a mammoth budget, attractive leads, and director Bryan Singer expanding the story of a humble peasant vs. a ravenous giant into something that incorporates a plucky princess, an enchanted crown, a sardonic soldier, a war between giants and humanity, and much, (maybe too) much more. But is the audience’s resounding apathy deserved? Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they discuss this 3D attempt to do bigger better and weigh whether this version distinguishes itself from the revisionist lot, or is just more fee-fi-fo-fum.
Plus: Steve gives his capsule review of THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, and what’s coming to theaters next week. [NOTE: the podcast capsule is spoiler free. For a more in-depth look at what’s wrong – and almost right – about the ending, check out the review posted here.]
Sitting down to write a review of THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, I find myself somewhat in the position of the modern satirist, who finds the real world has become so ridiculous that there is little room to push the envelope even further for comic effect, rendering the concept of satire almost redundant. In my case, reviewing THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is virtually redundant because you, dear reader, have already viewed it. Oh, you may not have paid for a ticket yet, but believe me, you have seen it all – in other, earlier – though not necessarily better – movies. But then, this is hardly surprising. After all, if the previous film offered the last exorcism – the end of the line, done, finished, all over and used up – then we have only ourselves to blame for expecting anything new in PART II.
What is mildly interesting is that what we have seen before is not necessarily from THE LAST EXORCISM. In fact, PART II makes a laudable attempt to distance itself from its predecessor, using the previous film’s plot only as a back story and abandoning the pseudo-documentary stylings in favor of a more conventional approach that focuses on the soul survivor of the confusing conflagration that consumed the characters at the conclusion of Part 1.
This time out, Nell (Ashley Bell) is the central character, attempting to recover from her traumatic past while evading evil forces that may be pursuing her or may exist only in her mind. (One guess: which turns out to be correct?) Bell provides an award-worthy performance as a lost and fragile soul, struggling to come to grips with unpleasant memories and to find a place for herself in a modern world that makes her feel like a stranger in a strange land (after years couped up in the creepy cabin of the first film).
The inevitable problem with this scenario is that generic demands trump satisfying drama. No matter how much the opening scenes engage our sympathy, it is all for naught – simply a set up for the sturm and drang to come, during which THE LAST EXORCISM PART II jettisons everything that worked in order to parade a few well-worn shocks across the screen like has-beens on a decrepit vaudeville stage, before proceeding to the sadly predictable finale.
I say “predictable,” because (as I indicated above) you have seen it before, along with almost everything else in the film – and almost all within the past couple months. Seriously, if you have watched more than a few horror movies this year, you have seen THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, almost from beginning to end. Don’t believe me? Well, read on… WARNING: Major spoilers abound.
We start with a reasonably well-staged set-piece of a couple alarmed by an unexpected intrusion, which turns out to be a feral-looking child, hunched on all fours atop a shelf (MAMA).
The child – well, young woman – turns out to be orphaned, or at least abandoned, with a supernatural force pursuing her and protecting her (also MAMA).
There is a spooky cult, seen at the end of the previous film, that wants to drag her back into the fold (essentially PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 – which was last year, but still…).
We know our girl is being targeted by evil forces because she levitates above her bed (also PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4).
Also, a flock of birds go kamikaze on the windows of a building she is in (apparently having flapped over from DARK SKIES).
The dilemma, it turns out, is that the young woman must decide whether to renounce the darkness or join forces with it (BEAUTIFUL CREATURES).
Helping her in this effort is a sympathetic black female supporting character, who can offer a little non-Christian spiritual support because this is the South, where they have all the voodoo stuff (also BEAUTIFUL CREATURES and come to think of it, kinda sort THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA).
In the end, the exorcism proves ineffective (THE LAST EXORCISM), and the invading entity gains purchase within the body of an innocent victim (INSIDIOUS).
If you don’t mind re-watching a virtual montage of other horror movies, THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is interesting for a while, although its slow build-up is more “slow” than “build-up.” The spook scenes more or less sustain themselves in the first half, when the filmmakers keep to relatively believable phenomena that could be explained away as dreams, hallucinations, or coincidence. But the urge to supply a fright-filled finale pushes the film beyond its ability to sustain credibility (a roomful of levitating knifes seems lifted from an Italian EXORCIST rip-off, circa 1979.)
It is almost an article of faith among contemporary horror films that Evil is all powerful and unstoppable, so much so that resistance is futile; the characters might as well give up and resign themselves to their fate before the film even starts, saving us the trouble of wasting our time to see them reach their inevitable end. Back in the 1970s, this sort of cynicism made some kind of sense in the context of the disillusionment engendered by Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation; today, it merely seems arbitrary.
I suppose that, if one were in a sympathetic frame of mind, one could find an argument to justify THE LAST EXORCISM PART II’s final turn of events, which offer just a hint of rebellious joyful anarchy – bordering on self-righteous glee – which results from overthrowing one’s oppressors. Somewhat miraculously, Ashley Bell engages our sympathy almost strongly enough to make us vicariously endorse this conclusion (somewhat in the manner that we root for Carrie White’s prom-night revenge).
Unfortunately, the scenario is too contrived to support this reading credibly. Everyone is suspect – possibly part of the evil conspiracy, as evidenced by an unnerving trip to a church, where a chaplain offers not so soothing spiritual comfort in dialogue carefully calibrated to obscure whether he is talking about God or demonic Abalam, who wants to find a home in Nell’s body. Furthermore, the alleged representatives of the Power of Good (called the “right-hand path”) are too closely akin to the incompetent Jedi from STAR WARS, EPISODE III: THE REVENGE OF THE SITH, who seemed to almost deliberately drive Anakin to join the Dark Side of the Force. Poor double-crossed Nell – we are led to believe – has no choice but to accept Abalam, because everyone else is so afraid of what will happen if she accepts Abalam.
Except, you know, her would-be boyfriend, whom Abalam forces to commit suicide (nice, effective way to earn your potential victim’s sympathy and convince her to submit willingly!). And her sympathetic therapist. There’s also the nagging problem that Abalam, we are told, is weak without Nell as a vessel for his power – until the script needs him to be so powerful that he cannot be exorcised,* scaring the Right-Hand Path into attempting to kill Nell in order to prevent Abalam from entering her and fulfilling an apocalyptic prophecy.
Is it any wonder the poor girl goes a little bit off the rails at the end? I mean, who wouldn’t – the script (if not the devil) made her do it. Too bad the switch from victim to victimizer feels like a half-hearted afterthought, targeting a handful of (mostly off-screen) victims. Instead of a cathartic explosion of apocalypstic proportions, we get a joy ride, a few computer-generated flames, and some rock-and-roll on the soundtrack.
This, it seems, is how the world ends – not with a bang but with a music video.
[rating=2] THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (March 1, 2013). CBS Films, 88 minutes, rated R. Written by Damien Chazell and Ed Gass-Donelley. Directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. Cast: Ashley Bell, Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark, David Jensen, Tarra Riggs, Louis Herthum, Muse Watson, Erica Michelle, Sharice A. Williams, Boyana Balta, Joe Chrest. FOOTNOTE:
Yes, there is an exorcism in THE LAST EXORCISM PART II. Which means that THE LAST EXORCISM did not, in fact, feature the “last exorcism.”
Is THE LAST EXORCISM this generation’s version of THE EXORCIST? No: , with its faux-documentary style, backwoods setting, and ambiguous attitude toward possession, the filmcomes across more like an unholy hybrid of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. By turns satirical and startling, THE LAST EXORCISM takes a low-key approach that emphasizes believability that yields impressively eerie dividends as it follows a minister who who sets out to debunk the practice of exorcism by allowing a documentary crew to film him at work. This laudable attempt at creating serious horror is guaranteed to make viewers sit up and scream – this is definitely not a roller-coaster joyride slasher flick. Unfortunately, THE LAST EXORCISM loses its way in the second half, particularly with an unsatisfying ending that undermines much of what has come before.
Imitation documentaries should have worn out their welcome by now, but at least initially, THE LAST EXORCISM makes good use of the form, allowing Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) to fill us in on his background as a child preacher who grew up to become a minister an exorcist. Since reading about an exorcism gone wrong (in which the possessed subject was accidentally killed), Marcus has had a change of heart if not a complete crisis of faith: although he rationalizes his past exorcisms (by saying they removed the “thought” of possession from the victim), he feels he can prevent future deaths by exposing exorcism as a fraud.
It’s a good set-up. Marcus is an ambiguous character, but he seems (initially) to be sincere in his attempt to make amends for his past, and we can’t really blame him for what he used to do (he was raised to be a preacher by his father and never stopped to question that upbringing). However, his attempt to debunk exorcism on camera takes a weird turn: instead of exposing some other fraud, Marcus commits fraud himself. Whatever his avowed motives, he allows himself to be documented as he bilks a gullible farmer whose daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) appears to be possessed.
Perhaps this is the filmmakers’ way of maintaining Marcus’s ambiguity, but the film itself seems to overlook the problem: the on-screen documentarians are unconcerned with the criminality they are witnessing, and Marcus himself has no concerns that the film they are shooting might ever be used in court against him. These early scenes are marred by a slightly self-satisfied air: as we in the audience are invited to laugh at Marcus’s deception, THE LAST EXORCISM borders on condescension, even outright contempt, toward its rural characters, who are being played as rubes.
Unfortunately for Marcus and his crew, the case he chose proves to be more difficult – and dangerous – than imagined. Nell continues to exhibit signs of possession after Marcus completes his exorcism, and her father Louis (Louis Herthum) would prefer to kill her rather than leave her possessed by a demon. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Marcus has no choice but to continue with the exorcism, even though he is convinced that Nell would be better served by a doctor.
Here, THE LAST EXORCISM ratchets up the tension in an effectively edgy way. Marcus goes from being a confident con man, in charge of the situation, to being in totally over his head. There is a certain satisfying thematic irony in seeing someone perpetrate a hoax and then find himself hoist on what he thought was his own bogus petard: it’s almost as if rural American were getting its revenge on the sharp city slicker. Needless to say, THE LAST EXORCISM is not the kind of film in which we can expect the character to learn his lesson and redeem himself; in the manner of E.C. Comics and Robert Bloch (e.g., “The Grim Reaper” episode of THRILLER), he is more likely to pay the price for his perfidy. It’s a “no win” situation, as one of the documentary crew says, and the audience fears the consequences will be tragic at least, and possibly lethal as well.
At this point, the early satire goes out the window as THE LAST EXORCISM morphs from a pseudo-documentary into an all-out horror show. The conventional camera style adjusts to include spooky angles and shadowy lighting, while ominous music arrives on the soundtrack. Although there is an unnecessary moment of gore (a real cat would be too quick to be bludgeoned by a camera in this way), thankfully, most of the manifestations of possession are kept low-key and believable; as in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, most of the horror comes from seeing the possessed girl contort herself in horribly painful ways, leaving the question of whether the case is “authentic” open to question. ( For example, the eerie poster image of the girl pinned to the ceiling does not appear in the film, unless you count a shot of Ashley sitting atop a hutch).
The stylistic shift is actually a welcome touch: like an earlier montage (which intercuts Marcus perpetrating fraud with shots of him explaining the magician style tricks he uses), the use of manipulative music and editing suggest that, unlike THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, we are watching not raw footage but a finished documentary. However, unlike DIARY OF THE DEAD (in which how the documentary came to be complete is actually part of the story) THE LAST EXORCISM is cheating – something that will not be apparent until the misguided ending.
This last-minute misstep should not blind us to the film’s virtues, in particular its performances. In a convincing cast, the two leads stand out. Despite the quibbles one may have with Marcus, Fabian makes him engaging, and he perfectly manages to the character’s midpoint shift from confidence to concern; you feel the level of sincerity that drives him to stick with the case even after his involvement should have been officially over. Bell also manages to pull off a convincing metamorphosis, from innocent to demonic, with the right shading to leave us guessing whether she is possessed or mentally ill. Even better, the occasional overt outbursts of violence are overshadowed by the subtle, quieter moments, like the sinister hint of a smile she flashes at the camera – and by extension at the faux-documentary’s cameraman, who has begun to fear that Nell intends to kill him.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE ENDING [SPIOLERS]
After building to a frenzy that seems to resolve itself into a rational explanation, THE LAST EXORCISM reaches one of those unsatisfying “conclusions” that is obviously just a set-up for a twist. Learning a new key fact, Marcus and crew head back to the farm one last time, where they encounter a satanic ceremony. At first the imagery has a creepy Nathaniel Hawthorne vibe, presenting a shadowy “alternate” reality that exists in the dark forest at night, conflicting with the character’s safe daylight assumptions. However, when Nell gives birth to a baby that is described as “not human” we realize that THE LAST EXORCISM has tripped into the realm of bad ’70s exploitation, abandoning credibility in favor of “it’s only a movie” schlockiness. Do we really need another film telling us that isolated communities are nothing but a front for nefarious cult activity?
As Marcus races towards the flames – which flare as if to suggest an actual demonic presence – THE LAST EXORCISM could have been on the verge of a powerfully dramatic conclusion that would have resolved its mysteries. Instead, it opts for the arbitrary “got you in the last scene” conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. This provides a jolt or two and even pays off on an earlier set-up (a drawing by Nell that foretold the outcome), but it undermines the earlier use of editing and music: the abrupt BLAIR WITCH-type coda leaves us wondering who was left alive to manipulate the film in post-production – a concern that does not seem to trouble THE LAST EXORCISM’s actual filmmakers.
It is unfortunate that THE LAST EXORCISM takes the generic way out in its final moments, which violate the integrity of the project. I am not a big fan of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but at least it stayed true to the conceit of a being a “found” film. THE LAST EXORCISM delivers an intriguing story with more than enough scares to satisfy cinematic thrill-seekers, but if producer Eli Roth, director Daniel Stamm, and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland had stuck to the rules they themselves established, their film could have been even better.
Whether or not it stays true to its faux-documentary conceit, THE LAST EXORCISM ultimately abandons its aspiration to be something more than just an effective genre film. Early on, Marcus states that if you believe in God, you must believe in the Devil, as if this were an incontrovertible theological truism. THE LAST EXORCISM is not particularly interested in exploring this idea – which is far from universally accepted in religious circles – nor does the film have much interesting to say about exorcism, possession, faith, or religion, which are used as a foundation for effective scare tacitcs. On this level, the film mostly delivers, but it lacks the resonance that made THE EXORCIST an enduring classic. UPDATE: I have to admit that Boston.com’s Jesse Singal summed up THE LAST EXORCISM much more succinctly than I:
It’s like director Daniel Stamm and his crew realized they were treading awfully close to making a film with real depth and edge that horror audiences might hate, and they just couldn’t pull the trigger.
THE LAST EXORCISM (Lionsgate: August 27, 2010). Produced by Eli Roth. Directed by Daniel Stamm. Written by Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland. Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley, John Wright Jr., Shanna Marcus, Justin Shafer, Carol Sutton, Victoria Paternaude, John Wilmot, Becky Fly, Denise Lee, Logan Craig Reid. Shot under the title, COTTON.