The Last Exorcism
November 25, 2010
When a film’s title suggests it is the “last” of anything it is fairly obvious that it will be self-reflexive within the confines of its own generic classification. Whilst clearly it is has no intention of being the “last” of its kind (there was in 1982 The Last Horror Film and in 2003 The Last Horror Movie, neither of which have come remotely close to being “last” and both of which were in fact rather poorly received), what it is hoping to do is definitively invert certain generic tropes altering, or at least playing with, audience expectancy and a prescribed economics of predictability. The Last Exorcism (2010) then is far more comparable to something like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) which is also a mockumentary horror/comedy that plays very much as The Last Exorcism does with audience investment and the effects of suspending and re-introducing standard generic modes of disbelief. Furthermore, with the credits reading “Produced by Eli Roth” it would remiss of anyone aware of even contemporary horror film history to think that the film wasn’t at least a little bit interested in testing its audience.
The Last Exorcism opens with protagonist and exorcist Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) shaving and talking to camera (which is already self-consciously visible from the bathroom mirror reflection) to establish a “documentary aesthetic”. The first section of the film continues in this stylistic manner as it reveals a little about our fraudulent hero. The majority of the Cotton talking to camera sequences operate to establish both him and Him as imposters, often to great comic effect. Cotton tells us, “If you believe in God you have to believe in the devil. Jesus Himself was an exorcist.” And, on contemplating this one last “exorcism” he is about to perform – his way out of what he calls a crisis of faith, “I’m gonna miss this. Maybe I’ll sell real estate.”
Then the film shifts up a gear (much like the aforementioned Behind the Mask) and crosses over from its comedic mockumentary style and becomes an actual horror film for the remainder of its duration. The shift is timely and welcome as, irregardless of how amusing the mockumentary elements are (and they really are, especially the sequence where we are shown the process behind many standard effects used in horror), there is only so long such a technique can sustain itself and its audience’s attention. That said, there are still plenty of laughs to come even within the “horror” scenes themselves.
The performed exorcisms and the possession sequences that follow are suspiciously like the ones seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) (particularly the barn sequence) although the results and the level of tension pitched in this film are much less severe or serious. The final scene in the film (a tonally fitting end for a horror/comedy) is where The Last Exorcism confirms that it was interested primarily in adjusting the levels of tone and pace with the hope at altering well-established, predictable and arguably tired paradigms of audience expectancy. Whilst far from “scary” and not exactly definitive in execution, The Last Exorcism is a lot of fun and comes with an appreciable knowledge and respect for horror-literate audiences.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.