Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Last Exorcism is an intelligent and ambitious mess.

The Last Exorcism is another handy-cam horror movie, though one that has an interesting premise. 

It takes the form of a documentary about a preacher who has been preaching since he was a boy, and who has performed dozens of exorcisms. They're just an extension of his act, as far as he's concerned. It's undeniably fun watching someone poke fun at the church from inside, but it's not really all that inventive or interesting. The pastor is very charming. He gives a sermon where he throws in a banana bread recipe, and nobody seems to notice, and that's funny. But when the movie starts looking at the danger involved when people with real problems turn to religion for help, that's when it caught my attention.

The pastor admits to the camera that he knows these are troubled people, psychologically, but he justified this to himself by saying that often the exorcisms actually help them, even if it's just the idea of being healed that helps them heal. But he's started to have second thoughts after he reads about a boy being killed in the process of an exorcism. The boy was not possessed, he was autistic, which hits close to home. This preacher's own son has disabilities. That's why he's agreed to this documentary. He wants to expose exorcism as a scam. He doesn't want anyone else hurt.

But what starts as a documentary exposing himself and exorcism as a sham, turns into something else entirely. And I don't just mean that it turns out the victim is really possessed. Because the interesting twists take place while that is still unclear. 

The documentary follows the preacher as he reads his mail and emails and selects someone who claims to need an exorcism. He makes a glib show of skimming the letter he chooses to respond to, "blah blah blah livestock mutilations. blah blah blah demonic possession," and so it isn't until after they arrive at the Louisiana farm where the family lives that he realizes it's a young girl named Nell who is supposedly possessed. "I don't like dealing with children," he confides to the camera.

Nell is very innocent and timid. She's home schooled, and is thrilled just to be around people from the real world. She's also possibly murdering her father's cattle.

When the fake exorcism doesn't work, the movie spirals through a series of revelations, the whole time showing Nell in creepier and creepier situations. She distorts and climbs furniture, and badly slashes her brothers face, but the whole time it only becomes less clear whether she is possessed or not. When they learn that Nell is pregnant, the camera crew falls apart, yelling at each other, unable to agree how to deal with sexual abuse. This isn't what they're here for, but they can't just pretend it isn't their problem now, especially not after they've convinced the alcoholic and possibly violent father that his daughter's soul is in danger.

Female sexuality is always treated in horror movies as a part of the horrifying possession, as is the sexuality of the young, so it is creepy, for instance, when Linda Blair (in the movie The Exorcist) is saying filthy sexual things. There's a demon saying these things through a little kid. But it's different here. When the possession isn't certain, this explicit vulgarity and sexual agression could just as easily be a frustrated and confused girl who has no idea how to deal with or understand the abuse and repression she's suffered. It becomes terrifying in a different way.

This is a movie that built slowly and subtly, and got more and more difficult to peg as it progressed. But it ends on a simplistic, unsatisfying note. I was so frustrated by the end of this movie. But I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the movie because of that. Everything up til the end is more than worth your time. The actress who plays Nell is amazing, as is her brother. And the preacher is every bit as charming as he thinks he is. This is a movie that will satisfy and engage right up until the end. 

The end itself is dog garbage.