If you’ve never seen “The Last Exorcism,” you really should. And when you follow my sage advice and do so, you should make sure you hit STOP as soon as everything looks like it’s going to be okay. Not because I want you to maintain the fluffy-wuffy feelings of everything working out in the end, but because unless you do this, “The Last Exorcism” is going to suck balls.
And not the cool way, either, like when your girl or fella has a little too much to drink and decides to get adventurous. (Patrick, you saucy, saucy boy…) No, “The Last Exorcism” is somewhat remarkable in that, with one moronic plot twist, it spirals from decent film to Direct-to-DVD fare so painfully you wonder if it just gave you the clap.
As the film opens, you’re introduced to Cotton Marcus, a Pentecostal preacher and exorcist who, unbeknownst to his flock, lost his faith years ago. He has grown cynical as he continues to preach, realizing that it is his unique persuasiveness that causes his congregation to believe, not the actual presence of God himself. Marcus also refuses to perform exorcisms anymore, following the tragic death of an autistic boy who underwent an exorcism and died as a result. Convinced that the lives and well-being of innocent people depends on him raising his voice against superstition, Marcus invites a film crew to document an upcoming exorcism he has agreed to conduct, for the purpose of exposing the operation as a sham.
The film effectively invests you in Marcus right away. He is a charming, quick-witted, but compassionate character, able to both surreptitiously convince his congregation to sing praise to pie ingredients while showing emotional discomfort at how fickle the nature of faith can be. He’s a guy who doesn’t believe, but you get the sense that he wants to. He may even intend for the documentary to convince him just as much as he would like for it to convince an audience.
Marcus’s exorcism is cheeky and theatrical. He employs joy buzzers, smoking crucifixes, and sound equipment to adequately imitate the affectations that laypeople would associate with demonic activity. However, as the situation grows weirder and more serious, Marcus faces two equally terrifying possibilities: one, that the girl may be a socially isolated and sexually abused schizophrenic, or two, that the girl may in fact be possessed by demonic entities.
The film showcases intelligence and discipline in never portraying the exorcism as overtly supernatural: the girl doesn’t float, become deformed, or suffer otherwise mortal injury and survive. Everything you see could be attributed to classic signs of schizophrenia: Nell breaks her own fingers, speaks in strange and garbled voices, contorts her body in painful but feasible ways, and scrambles along the corner of a wall in a manner that is not impossible to replicate with effort. As the film unfolds, you learn that Nell is pregnant, and Marcus is finally able to break through to Nell by convincing her that she is loved by her family, and that she is not the sinful creature she fears herself to be.
It could be that Nell overcame the supernatural forces at work in her through the love she felt for her family. It could also be that her schizophrenic stupor was shattered, even if temporarily, by emotional connection, and that with treatment, Nell will be fine. Marcus is left without any unambiguous answers, as is the audience, but it’s possible that his faith has been restored in realizing that God may not intervene as overtly as we like, but that He is there in the small doses of kindness, love, and affection we show one another.
It’s a gorgeous, shockingly sophisticated ending for a horror film, and I was thoroughly impressed with its level of maturity.
Except: the fucking thing keeps going.
As the crew drives off, Marcus pulls into a local restaurant to talk to Nell’s “boyfriend,” only to learn that the kid is gay. Returning to Nell’s house, the crew finds it defaced with occult symbols. Journeying into the woods, they secretly witness a black mass. Nell gives birth to a demonic infant, which is quickly thrown into a fire, sacrificed in order to summon a malevolent entity from the flames. Marcus resolves his faith and confronts the creature, cross in hand, as the two crew members run. Marcus’s fate is left unseen; the crew is hunted down and killed.
Annnd…scene. God damn it.
So, first off: everyone dies or disappears. Of course. It can’t just be a fake documentary. Nooo, it’s got to be realized through the achingly overdone “found footage” plot device. Once, just once, can we have a mockumentary where not everyone dies? It’s tacky, and in films like Cloverfield and Trollhunter, it really interferes with the overall atmosphere of the film.
You could argue that the cultists committed murder because they needed to stay secret, but A LOT of people knew EXACTLY where Marcus and his crew where. Sure, it totally fits int the mindset that “bad guys are evil,” but tragically, it also falls squarely into the “bad guys don’t think shit through” archetype that too many filmmakers indulge in.
And besides that, THE FILM ALREADY ENDED. It ended beautifully! It showcased how delicate and internalized faith can be, while also exploring the fact that faith is not a system of quantification, but of qualitative reflection. It demonstrated the thin line between wisdom and belief, and how the two mindsets balanced one another out. It was a brave ending for a film in a genre that gorges itself with the cheap thrills and paper-thin storytelling.
But then…the second ending happened. And…UGH. Cultists in corny robes, babies with horns (never seen that shit before…), demons materializing in fire, characters balled up and thrown away like used tissues because, why not, movie’s gotta go out with a bang, right?
NO! Christ, this obsession with twist endings is eating the horror genre alive. Sometimes they work…sometimes twist endings are what gives a story its power. But other times, twist endings are what ruin horror films. Mortuary explicitly shows the zombie-making monster die, and then suddenly, all the zombies are alive again, because fuck it, movie’s gotta have a mindless twist, after all. Even if said twist completely nullifies anything accomplished by the characters in the film. Even if it doesn’t even succeed in making you jump. Even if it doesn’t make any fucking sense.
(On a side note: My Name is Bruce commented on this habit pretty cleverly. It relieved me to learn that I’m not the only one irked by this trend.)
I have zero interest in The Last Exorcism Part II. The first film ends right before they talk to the gay kid, as far as I’m concerned. And since the entire sequel is built upon the final idiotic sequence in the first film, my lack of interest, though already non-existent, is somehow doubled. I don’t pretend to understand how that is. I just know it to be so.
You really should see The Last Exorcism, if you haven’t already. You just shouldn’t see all of it.
– The Awful Writer