In Peter Biskind’s excellent book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Biskind documents the rise of the great directors of the ’70s, including: Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and William Friedkin. In a chapter dedicated to Friedkin’s seminal horror film “The Exorcist,” Biskind writes that Regan McNeil’s possession represents a phenomenon that all young girls go through — the onset of puberty. McNeil transforms from innocent young lady to a raging demon. I know my mother would agree that change is similar to that of a girl hitting her teen years.
Given that “The Exorcist” has inspired countless exorcism films since, it’s interesting to view them in this light. Consider that most of the victims in exorcist films are young girls on the verge of womanhood. They often come from sheltered homes or tension fraught backgrounds (McNeil herself was raised in a single parent household, still rare in 1973), and it is always, always adult men that come to exorcise the demon.
The exorcism itself is rife with sexual imagery. The possessed will try and seduce the stalwart priest; they will be in a submissive position relative to the rest of the characters (tied to a bed, chained up, passed out on the ground), and they will literally be unable to control themselves. The resulting imagery is one of dominant, often male, powers trying to control emergent female sexuality. In the end, we know this is often to their folly as the priests will fail in their attempt to exorcise the demon or die trying. What this implies about female’s awakening to their sexuality I can hardly speculate, but it does map out how exorcism films have played out since “The Exorcist” premiered in 1973.
In 2010, we have “The Last Exorcism,” a documentary-style horror film directed by Daniel Stamm and produced by Eli Roth. Roth attended the Toronto premiere of the film Monday night and while introducing the film he acknowledged the debt “The Last Exorcism” has to “The Exorcist,” but also made it clear that the film he produced was an attempt to re-imagine the genre. “The Last Exorcism” follows Pastor Cotton Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian, a showboating evangelical priest who has decided to expose exorcisms for the sham they are after a young child is killed because of one. He randomly chooses the Sweetzer family, and a documentary crew tags along for the ride. It becomes clear after multiple exorcism attempts that something is truly wrong with the possessed Nell Sweetzer. She draws creepy pictures foretelling the future and attacks animals right before the eyes of the audience. Stamm does an excellent job of getting in as much action as he can while still avoiding an R-rating. Much of the violence is perpetrated off screen and left to our imaginations.
I can tell how this film wanted to be original. It is shot in documentary style, and it is also unexpectedly funny, a rarity amongst the horror sub-genre of exorcism films. This is all because of Fabian’s excellent performance as Pastor Marcus. He is a showman first, pastor second and he revels in it, winking and mugging for the camera but still adding that spark of humanity that makes him a likable character. As Pastor Marcus, he is convinced that God and religion are a sham so he simply revels in it, getting his congregation excited with cheap card tricks and performing exorcisms with aids that appear to have been bought from a practical joke store. Any enjoyment I got from this film came from Fabian’s performance and it is a credit to his acting in “The Last Exorcism” that he so effectively keeps the audience engaged in his story.
Hunour and Fabian’s excellent performance aside, I do not think this film lived up to Roth’s claim that is an original film. It may be a first for exorcism films, but shooting horror films documentary style is hardly a new technique. In only the last two years, we’ve had “Rec” and “Paranormal Activity.” But the major problem is that the plot offers nothing unexpected. It may look shiny and new, and there are little changes along the way but the reality is that “The Last Exorcism” uses the same formula as “The Exorcist.” We have a young girl about to hit puberty, recurring themes of the expression of female sexuality, a repressed home environment, and-once Pastor Marcus realizes he is dealing with a real, live demon-a patriarch riding into the save the day. As a result nothing in the film felt surprising or frightening because we’ve already seen the plot before. Don’t get me wrong, there are worse ways to spend your $12 at the cinema, but those hoping for a unique take on exorcism films are bound to be disappointed. This is simply more of the same, this time shot as a documentary and with a sense of humor.
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