That Old Time Religion
by Genevieve Yue

The Last Exorcism
Dir. Daniel Stamm, U.S., Lions Gate

In 1799, Étienne-Gaspard Robertson premiered the phantasmagoria, a moving magic lantern projection hidden behind a screen, to a crowded audience gathered at a Parisian convent. Though he tried to present himself as a scientist exposing the tricks of the trade (of both magicians and the Church) to foster superstitious belief, the wildly spectacular nature of his performance, with its ghoulishly materializing and receding figures, only confirmed his status as supernatural conjurer. Robertson’s entertainment was like all horror stories that begin in skepticism: thrill and fright trump our sense of knowing better. Time and again we see teenagers challenging each other to spend a night in a haunted house, sociologists investigating urban legends, or film students setting out into the forest to prove there isn’t anything out there. In these narratives of dare and debunking, science always loses, its certainty shaken in the presence of the unknown.

Though visual appeals to realism have long been used in horror, The Blair Witch Project was a breakthrough in its bringing a documentary aesthetic to mainstream horror, raising the stakes by introducing the witnessing presence of a camera. However savvy we may be in understanding the manipulability of images, docu-horror trades on our persistent belief in the photograph’s objectivity, distorting its truth claims to terrifying extremes. The Last Exorcism, like Diary of the Dead and Paranormal Activity, follows this premise: as the Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) candidly admits to the documentary film crew interviewing him, “I want to expose exorcism for the scam that it is.” This isn’t a real documentary, of course, and it’s not even the TV show Ghost Hunters, which suspends judgment either in favor of or against the otherworldy. It’s a horror film, and by speaking those words, Marcus effectively seals his fate.

The documentary exposition of the film’s first half is by far the most intriguing. We’re introduced to Marcus, a slick-tongued Baton Rouge preacher who affects a drawl and bulging eyes when on stage, sometimes with a deck of cards, before his hand-waving, Hallelujah-shouting congregation. At home, however, he’s an ordinary, middle-class suburbanite, having recently suffered a crisis of faith when his son was born with a hearing defect. More recently, after learning about an accidental death caused by an exorcism gone wrong, he began to have a recurring dream in which he performed an exorcism on his son, killing him in the process. Marcus took to heart the message that his faith or his hypocrisy as a preacher was destroying his family, and he vowed to stop performing exorcisms after this last one. Like the titular child evangelist who later renounced his livelihood in the 1972 documentary Marjoe, Marcus is affable and surprisingly frank. Born into a family of preachers, we see him awakening to a profound reevaluation of his own life, even if it means exposing the church as something less than holy. He’s more a performer than a preacher, and like a rogue magician, he reveals his secrets with cheerful zeal, planting bellowing demon sound effects in a room he’s preparing for an exorcism, or demonstrating a trick crucifix that billows smoke at the press of a button. The documentary crew of two, a mostly unseen cameraman and producer/sound technician Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr), follow Marcus from the intimate spaces of his home to the opened doors of his church, and in the second half of the film, they travel together to rural Louisiana to perform his final exorcism at the Sweetzer family farm.

This is when the film begins to slide into horror terrain, with Marcus assuming the role of the doubting, but well-intentioned and vaguely patrimonial, protagonist. Much like The Exorcist’s Father Karras, he doesn’t quite believe exorcisms are real, but concedes that they provide some kind of psychological salve all the same. Generic conventions crop up like weeds in the overgrown Sweetzer yard: a backwoods setting in the deep South, overfriendly townspeople steeped in ghost stories and UFO sightings, and mysterious livestock slaughter. Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) has written to Marcus in a last-ditch effort to save his sweet and sprightly daughter Nell (Ashley Bell), who, according to him, has been possessed by a demon. Other details tip off Marcus and the film crew, however: a recently deceased mother, Nell’s withdrawal from Sunday school (the fundamentalist Louis explains it wasn’t “medieval” enough), the insinuation of incest, and the knowing, sinister smile of brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). Concerned for Nell’s well-being, the outsiders inevitably find themselves in more trouble than they bargained for, and despite vicious knife attacks, a gruesome cat murder, and a set of cutesy crayon drawings depicting their deaths, they can’t seem to leave the Sweetzer farm. In her possessed state, Nell is chilling, but aside from her impressive backbends, she’s as predictable as all the other horror tropes that dominate the second half of the film. The Last Exorcism does offer an inventive sequence when Nell takes control of the camera while the crew is sleeping, but it’s otherwise uneven and slipshod, containing more than a few moments of probably unintentional humor such as a pivotal plot point about something called a “blowing job,” stirring a logical fallacy that causes even the demon within Nell to cringe.

Because of these tired conventions, The Last Exorcism isn’t particularly frightening. The handheld roughness of the first half starts to look too calculated and polished by the second, and the deeper the film delves into supernatural effects, the more it shows its hand as a constructed fable: if this were really “found footage” à la Blair Witch, who added the creepy music or edited the presumably single camera footage into multiple perspectives? We know that this is a horror film, so we know what’s going to happen, but the more shocking result might have come from filming an actual documentary about one of the many exorcisms that, as Marcus describes, are on the rise worldwide, or to depict a ten-year old version of him performing his first exorcism. Sometimes we don’t need narratives of supernatural menace; sometimes it’s scary enough to see what regular people are capable of.

Early in the film there’s a brief mention of the various forms of Christianity that practice exorcism. Marcus explains that Catholics get all the attention, but the evangelicals have also been doing a brisk business. The final sequence, however, references the Puritans with a scene straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” one of the most terrifying pieces of social critique ever written. Like the devout Brown, who comes across a mysterious gathering deep in the woods and discovers that the venerated village elders are not who they seem, Marcus stumbles into a situation that inverts, or perverts, his entire worldview. Cotton Marcus, furthermore, seems a namesake for the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who, for all his interest in bridging the gap between science and spirituality, was one of the most vehement persecutors during the Salem Witch Trials. Perhaps the reason the Puritans aren’t mentioned directly is because their legacy in American cultural life is the most pervasive, as well as the most subtle. For all of Goodman Brown’s piety or Cotton Mather’s moral certitude, the danger lies in all that we exclude, or pretend isn’t there, especially within ourselves. Though abrupt and by many accounts a disappointment, The Last Exorcism’s denouement suggests something deeply troubling, a vision of horror that originates not in the otherworldly, but in this world, hidden in plain sight.