By now, I’m going to assume that you’ve all heard of Daniel Stamm’sThe Last Exorcism. For one, the advertisements for the film seem to be all over the place. From television, to theater lobbies, to online, viral videos, the film is hard to ignore. Add to that Producer Eli Roth’s ability to really whore out anything he is involved with, and you’d be hard-pressed not to know about the movie… Well, after what seems like years of hearing about it, the film finally opens this Friday (August 27th, 2010), and I was lucky enough to have had the chance to see it last week at Toronto After Dark 2010. What’s more, I have to admit that I genuinely liked the film.
For those who don’t know the idea behind it, Last Exorcism tells the story of a preacher who has been duping people for years by staging false exorcisms. One day, he comes to the realization that he really isn’t happy with how he has lived his life thus far, and he decides to enlist a film crew to shoot footage of him performing one final exorcism, with the resulting film serving as the final proof that such events are a total sham. However, as fate would have it, the young girl that he chooses as his final subject may just change his outlook on things…
Now, before I get into my thoughts on the film, I just want to put it out there that, going into this movie, I did not expect to really like it all that much. For one, I was wary of the marketing that was being built around the film, and I felt that it really didn’t make the film look all that original. Secondly, I have grown pretty tired of the idea of “found footage” films. Lastly, I’ll admit that I was really questioning whether Roth’s involvement in the film could be a good thing. You see, like many others out there, I was starting to see the man as someone who went from making his own movies to just taking bit parts in other peoples’.
Well, to my pleasant surprise, all of my reservations wound up being totally unwarranted, and I wound up having a great time watching the movie. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it is one of the best wide-release horror films to come out this year… And, believe me, I’m not just saying that because I happened to see it at a red carpet premiere… I’m saying it because I actually enjoyed the film.
A huge reason for this is because the performances in the film are very good. In particular, Patrick Fabiandoes a tremendous job playing the Reverend Cotton Marcus. By the time the first fifteen minutes had passed, I found myself genuinely liking his character. His sense of humor and believability just seem to pour out of him, and when shit starts to go down later in the movie, I really found myself rooting for him. Ashley Bell also does a great job as Nell Sweetzer, the young girl who may or may not be possessed, and the scenes with her and Fabian together were some of the best I’ve seen in a while.
It also helps that the film’s script manages to avoid turning into just another cliché rip-off, and it actually delivers some genuinely creepy moments. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a few scenes that seemed rather familiar at first, but in most cases, they wound up turning out quite a bit differently than I expected. And, what’s more, the characters’ reactions in the film are pretty damn sensible. At almost no point in the film did I find myself questioning why they did something, and their decisions are all totally justifiable under the circumstances they are in; even when things start to go terribly wrong.
Director Daniel Stamm does a great job of avoiding all the problems that come with “found footage” films. For example, not once did I hear someone complain about “shaky cam.” In fact, the shots stay fairly steady and well-composed throughout most of the film. Sure, there are a few moments where the camera gets a bit crazy, but in this case, they seemed to be used to actually reinforce something that was happening, and they were even pretty creative. He also pieces the story together very well (another credit to screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland), and he never really throws an explanation in your face about what is going on. Instead, he leaves you to draw you own conclusions about what actually happened in the film. In fact, after the film had wrapped, and we were at the pub, I found myself in several good conversations about the film — the ending, in particular — and many of us interpreted things differently (but we all enjoyed it).
I’d also like to make it a point to mention that the effects in this movie are almost all physical, and very little CGI is used. This is especially effective during the pivotal scenes between Cotton and Nell, where Bell performs a lot of unnatural, and unnerving, movements and contorts her body in ways that look like they aren’t possible; all of which the actress told us she did on her own (talk about flexibility!). If there was any CGI in the film, it’s really not noticeable, meaning that it was extremely well done and used only to accentuate things; the way it should be done.
In the end, I thought that The Last Exorcism was very well done, and it exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. Great characters, an original take on the material, and some genuinely tense and creepy moments make the film stand apart from most of what we’ve been getting in the theater lately. Don’t let the marketing fool you, as there is a lot more to this film. Director Daniel Stamm shows a lot of promise, and Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell are two actors that I hope we see a lot more of in the future. I really hope that people go to see this movie when it comes out this weekend, as it deserves to do well, and it might help convince studios to take more chances on distributing, lower-budget, independently-made films.