Due to a frozen computer, the author missed the 8:40pm showing of a movie he’d been meaning to see and had to catch the 10:50pm…which as it turns out was a good thing, because horror movies are more-appropriate for the small group of the graveyard screening than the packed house of an early Saturday night show.
The Last Exorcism is yet another entry in the positive trend of the “recovered footage” genre of horror and monster movies that came into vogue with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 and which Cloverfield famously breathed to life on “1.18.08.” Paranormal Activity, a 2007 film that received wide release in 2009, revived Blair Witch-style creepy minimalism. To focus on its characters and story, Paranormal Activity takes the reality of the subject matter–and the legitimacy of psychics, those perennial hucksters–for granted.
The Last Exorcism marvelously has its cake and eats it too, because the Reverend Cotton Marcus–the exorcist and our protagonist–is a charlatan. That’s not a spoiler so much as the setup: The exorcist is a Pentecostal minister who discovers during his son’s dangerous birth that he feels grateful to the doctor rather than God, and thus recognizes that he doesn’t have faith. For a while he stoically continues his ministry out of a belief that it is enough to “help people” (and to make a living, he frankly adds) by sustaining the falsehood of their possession by–and of course their liberation from–a demon. Marcus has a moment of conscience, however, when he reads about a boy the age of his son who suffocated during an exorcism because the officiating preacher put a plastic bag over his head. He resolves to expose his sham of a trade, hence the documentary that is this film. Along the way there are some funny demonstrations–and a tense allegation–of the props and tricks used to fool those who live in fear of a demon possessing a family member. Far from the fairly-straightforward good and evil of The Exorcist, with a solemn Father Karras ready to die out of Christian love for those he has never met, here we are told that those who claim they know about and can dispel evil just want our money.
Message received, movie.
Marcus’ mission to expose the exorcism racket backfires in the strangest way. This guy shows a lot of confidence in his now-very-worldly judgment during the titular exorcism in Louisiana. He becomes convinced that the subject–a sweet young girl named Nell–badly needs psychiatric care, but Nell’s father, a fine specimen of a credulous skeptic, finds himself trapped in the lie that brought him out to that isolated farm in the first place. In the interest of liberality and irony I’ll not say whether Nell is possessed or just very disturbed–but this situation is not what it appears to be. I could add a further hint, that the situation is “Polanskiesque”…but that hint will probably lead the reader astray more than anything.
The reason why the Liberal Ironist applauds of this movie is precisely because nothing is as it seems. That’s a narrative cliché of sorts, but here it’s done very well. Movies that effectively subvert the viewer’s expectations, at best, subvert the medium of movies or television itself. In a way the efficiency and completeness of the movie as an art form is a bad thing, so obviously-suited to the propaganda it is sometimes used to convey; with its short, emotionally-catalytic narrative structure a movie can flatten the sharp topography of moral vantage points, polarize characters whose motives sometimes deserve (and generally cannot receive) a movie of their own to explain, and tends to close on a “message” precisely where a clash of principles can help to explain why we need a message at all. The Last Exorcism can count among its clashing messages that exorcists are manipulators preying on the credulous, that sometimes the ones being fooled are the ones who understand the situation, that taking responsibility for some people sometimes puts others at risk, and that the lie that gets you in the door can trap you in the house.
Cotton Marcus will find, very late in the game, that he is a novice among the liars.