*The Last Exorcism (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
When William Friedkin's horror masterpiece The Exorcist was released in 1973, it royally pissed off the Catholic Church, despite the fact that its premise assumed the Church was right about demons. (Indeed, upon its re-release in 2000, a former chief exorcist for the Vatican proclaimed The Exorcist dead-on.)
Now, producer Eli Roth wants to reinvigorate, even reinvent, that classic tale with The Last Exorcism, a pseudo-documentary that pulls back the curtain on the practice, only to reveal darker depths. But if you can't even piss off the Catholics anymore, then it's time to ramp things up a bit. So Roth and director Daniel Stamm made a movie that will piss off everyone.
A wonderfully smarmy Patrick Fabian stars as Rev. Cotton Marcus, a Baton Rouge evangelist schooled in the business by his father since he was a kid. As he takes us through his life story to date, he gradually reveals, with a morsel of mournfulness, that he's become a mild non-believer. Now raising a handicapped son, he's read the stories about children being killed during so-called exorcisms — smothered, crushed, suffocated. (This happened in real life just last month in South Korea to a 4-year-old boy.) With a heavy conscience, he's invited an objective camera crew along with him as he performs his last exorcism in a bid to debunk the practice and reveal all of the smoke-and-mirrors for the party tricks they are.
This segment of the 85-minute film is its most fascinating by far. It's a play on the Oscar-winning documentary Marjoe, in which a child evangelist grows up, becomes a hippie and makes a film about how he rids his faithful flock of their hard-earned money. Fabian's performance is one of the year's best — he's like Aaron Eckhart in a linen suit.
We follow Marcus to backwoods Louisiana, where he explains that the poverty and lack of proper education creates a "breeding ground" for superstitious, deeply religious and terrified folks who believe they're in need of spirit-cleansing. We watch, between guffaws and jaw-dropped amazement, as Marcus rigs the bedroom of a supposedly possessed homeschooled teen, Nell (played to submissive perfection by Ashley Bell, the next Amy Adams, to be sure) with an iPod, wires and literal smoke machines to sell the idea that he's purging this girl of the devil. Then things get really weird.
It's unclear whether Stamm actually set out to ensure that every audience member will leave unsatisfied, but that's what happens. I heard numerous disgruntled scoffs at the movie's screening, possibly from religious conservatives.
I actually enjoyed the film's tender, only slightly judgmental social conscience, and its detour into the supernatural offers a certain degree of fun until the very end, where it's absolutely infuriating. Those looking for a fright with no room for logic and reason will also leave disappointed. And even if you fall somewhere in the middle, the film's abrupt, utterly unexplained last few minutes should do the trick. At least there's a certain fairness to equal-opportunity frustration.
Still, the bravura turns from the cast and the film's surprising message provide some compensation for its misguided attempts to thrill and chill. It's as if Stamm saw Jesus Camp and thought, "Now, that's a horror film." He's right, of course. And this one is too, only with much more blood and contortions.