Studio Name: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Disc/Transfer Information: 1080p 1.78:1; Region 1 (U.S.) Release
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Tested Audio Track: English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (tested in 5.1 configuration)
Director: Daniel Stamm
Starring Cast: Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian
BELIEVE IN HIM.
Boy, was this one of the biggest disappointments of the latest slew of anticipated titles to be released on home video – and it promised so much potential. If you went into this thinking it was going to be William Friedkin’s The Exorcist meets the visual style of Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project, you’re gonna be sorely let down. I really wanted to see this in theaters, as I’m an avid, seething, rabid fan of possession/occult themed cinema – give me Amityville II, The Exorcist and Exorcism of Emily Rose any day of the week over like The American President or Dances with Wolves – and the trailers suggested overtones of an actual, real-life exorcism taking place and being filmed via camcorder in the fashion of Cloverfield and the other two aforementioned pictures. The result was neither well executed nor faithful to what was suggested, culminating with a ridiculous ending that attempted to shock and hit the viewer over the head, but it was just plain stupid and amateurish.
The problem is also this tendency of all cinema today to gravitate towards doing these “from the camcorder perspective” projects – why? Why does seemingly every other film released have to be done in this nauseating, shaky, downright annoying fashion? My guess is to entertain the lamebrain young demographic morons that piled into theaters to see things like Blair Witch and who can’t possibly keep attention focused on a theater screen what with their Blackberries on their laps without resorting to this tactic. Clearly, The Last Exorcism attempts to take the quasi-habitual success of Paranormal Activity in particular and spin it into a possession oriented theme – while not billed or marketed as “based on a true case,” the setup shots want the viewer to think this is something that has happened or could happen, and the film suffers for the thick attempts at doing so. Further, there is, again, the backstory of some ******** living on a farm in the middle of preacher country (in this case it’s actually outside New Orleans, Louisiana) and the notion that their teenage daughter is the victim of strange demonic symptoms – of course, livestock are being slaughtered, there is a suspicion that incest between the girl’s father may be a factor and disturbing parallels to the events of Exorcism of Emily Rose are all over every aspect of The Last Exorcism; in fact, this almost feels like a direct rip off of that film…right down to the location shots and props.
With no opening title sequence, a la Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism begins with a camera taking unsteady shots of a country preacher shaving in his bathroom. Patrick Fabian plays this disillusioned evangelical minister, Cotton Marcus, who explains to the camera as he walks around his house being filmed documentary style, that he has been “healing” people through the power of suggestive thought – if these people think they’re possessed by the Devil, who is he to argue? He puts into their minds, he says, that they are being cleansed of the evil spirits, thus making them feel better, and in so doing feeds his family with the big money he collects doing these jobs. But as of late, Marcus explains, he has come to realize that what he is doing is fraudulent and he is beginning to grow a conscience about it all; he asks the filming crew to follow him to what he calls his last exorcism, in which he will reveal the tricks and secrets behind how he really “cleans” these people of their “possession.” What’s really behind Marcus’ revelation, though, is the fact that he read a newspaper clipping regarding an autistic boy that was killed during an exorcism, and this hit very close to him, being that he and his wife have a hearing-disabled son. He’s simply had enough of these dangers to children that these so-called exorcisms project.
Marcus pulls a letter off a stack of them he receives from a girl living on some desolate farm somewhere in Louisiana, claiming she has been suffering from possession and needs his help. He decides this is the case the film crew will capture, and so a road trip begins with Marcus and the team – all of this is shot in real time perspective, with Marcus behind the wheel of his van, driving to the farmhouse of the supposedly possessed girl, while talking about what he does to the camera. Along the way, the group stops at a gas station and other places, getting some feedback from superstitious members of this community that warn of “the gates of hell” near the Sweetzer farm – the family farm where this possessed girl is supposed to live. As the team near the farm, they are approached by what ends up being the girl’s brother, who exhibits some psycho tendencies and hurls rocks at the van of investigators and filmmakers. They eventually pull up to the Sweetzer farm in the distance – eerily similar to the Rose family farm in Exorcism of Emily Rose – and we meet Mr. Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), father of the possessed girl Nell (Ashley Bell), and finally Nell herself inside the farmhouse.
From there, things get quite bizarre – Nell is a strange one, indeed, with a sheltered personality that’s creepy all on its own. Her weird giggling and insistence on showing the team her room and wearing the camerawoman’s boots is disturbing, but made even more so when Marcus begins his show of drawing the so-called demon that’s inside her out. The tactics are laughable – he puts her feet in a pan of water which starts to boil as he recites some ritual, claiming that this is a sign of temperature fluxuation that indicates an exorcism is necessary.
As Marcus prepares his tools for the ceremony, he explains to the camera what each of these will do, and how he creates the illusion that a demonic spirit has entered the farmhouse – he plants devices to make Nell’s bed move, to create demonic voices in the room and to even make his crucifix start smoking, apparently proving that the demon has jumped from Nell into him and his crucifix. All throughout this, Nell slithers and twitches all over the bed, which we really don’t understand – if all of this is fake, why is she reacting like this? In reaction to “wanting” to be cured, as Marcus suggested early on? We’ve seen these kinds of reactions in these so-called real exorcisms that have been recorded all over the world…the little boys or girls that are tied to a bed, writhing around violently, spewing obscenities at a priest but making us wonder why they’re doing that if the whole thing isn’t genuine. At any rate, The Last Exorcism’s plot begins to get remotely interesting after Marcus claims the certain demon that was inside Nell has gone, and the team leave to stay at a local motel.
For some unknown reason, and no logic as to how she knew where they were staying or how she got there, Nell ends up appearing in Marcus’ motel room later that night – seemingly in a comatose state, she isn’t speaking and begins acting very strange, kissing and licking the shoulder of the female camera crew member, her eyes rolling to the back of her head and other bizarre gestures. The point of this part of the film is to make the viewers believe that Marcus is shocked by this behavior because this was supposed to be a mock exorcism to expose it for the fraud it really is – now, here is the same girl he worked on, showing signs that are confusing the out of him, and scaring the daylights out of the filming crew. They take her to a local hospital, where her father is contacted and she’s taken in for routine blood work and other tests. The tests come back negative, and before Nell is taken home by Louis, Marcus suggests he take her for psychiatric evaluation because these symptoms are beyond his level of expertise.
Marcus should just go home, as he’s already been paid by the Sweetzers for the exorcism, but his conscience gets the best of him, and he returns to the farmhouse. There, the crew find Nell’s unstable brother savagely cut across his face and jawline, bleeding profusely – apparently, Nell attacked him. When he writes a note proclaiming “Don’t Leave Her Alone with Him,” Marcus sends Louis to the hospital alone with the brother while the team stays in the house. Now, weird things begin to take place – noises, whispers, voices and other phenomenon begin frightening the crew, who realize this can’t be fake because Marcus isn’t behind it. Some various themes are explored here, one being a theory that the team comes up with regarding a possible incest problem between Louis and his daughter after there is evidence that Nell is pregnant; all the while, the crew chase Nell around the creaking farmhouse, looking for her in various rooms and finding her in strange contortions and positions.
The Last Exorcism attempts to exhibit a culminating exorcism sequence in an adjoining barn – just like in Emily Rose – where Marcus supposedly becomes a “real soldier of G-d” to force this supposed real demon out of Nell, but the whole ordeal just fell flat. There were moments of entertaining material – as Marcus confronts the demon inside the girl, as it talks in a variation of Nell’s voice while contorting her body into impossible positions (see the cover of the Blu-ray), but these sequences didn’t last long enough. The final frames of the film collapse into some ridiculous storyline involving a cult that’s behind Nell Sweetzer’s “symptoms” as they tie her up in the distance of the Sweetzer farm, along with her father, as some kind of sacrifice ceremony takes place. Marcus and his team watch from the bushes in complete horror, identifying the cult leader in his red velvet robe as a local pastor Marcus actually reached out to for help, and who the Sweetzer family knew well. What follows after that – cult members chasing the camera crew of this film around, as well as Marcus, to kill them – was just plain stupid and created a huge letdown.
The film runs for a brisk 80 something minutes, and the filmmakers could have come up with something better than this for an ending – there’s more to it that I did not give away, trust me, but it’s clear this was another attempt at copying the concluding frames of Paranormal Activity, suggesting that key characters were going to be slaughtered by those under some kind of “evil influence.”
VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS: HOW DID THE DISC LOOK?
Often called “at odds” with high definition encodes, these camcorder-perspective, real-time type filming techniques don’t normally show up positively on Blu-ray. Surprisingly, Lionsgate’s 1080p transfer of The Last Exorcism looked pretty good for the photography and filming techniques – sure, this wasn’t Avatar, but for a “home video” style look, the images were crisp with a lot of detail. Much of the interior shots involving the Sweetzer farmhouse, especially those involving subtle special effects for the Nell character, exhibited noisy globs of grain in the black areas and shadows, as to be expected, as these kinds of shots simply don’t do well in high definition. But the opening sequences involving Patrick Fabian’s Cotton Marcus character being interviewed for his final exorcism looked crisp, clear and showed tremendous detail in facial close-ups. The shots of the farmhouse from the exterior perspective were as sharp as could be expected; the unmanicured lawns surrounding the house had that popping high def look, as did bits of gravel and dirt surrounding the farm.
A surprising video transfer given the subject material and techniques used here.
AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS: HOW DID THE DISC SOUND?
While many other reviewers that have submitted their feelings on The Last Exorcism gushed over Lionsgate’s 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, I didn’t feel the same – although I was running the disc’s soundtrack in a 5.1 arrangement, I found the dialogue extremely low in output, with a muffled quality that made it necessary for me to keep riding the master volume. The audio, in general, was low and weak in my opinion, only opening up when there were “stinger moments” – quick, shocking effects used by the sound engineers to scare the audience out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, these effects worked; I can recall jumping out of my skin a few times during The Last Exorcism, mainly due to the eerie silence during a scene suddenly broken by an abrupt sound effect. But this 7.1 Master Audio track was by no means demo material – jarring effects during the confrontation between Marcus and Nell in the barn, where demonic winds and howls could be heard around the soundstage, were really the only positive sonic memories I have of this track.
This was the stripped down edition, so there were no extras save for coming attractions from Lionsgate and some bookmark functions – I would have liked to have viewed the version of the disc that included the documentaries regarding real exorcisms and some more perspective about this travesty from the filmmakers.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATIONS:
Disappointing is the word that comes to mind when summarizing The Last Exorcism – it attempted to be a possession oriented variant of Paranormal Activity, but for some reason, it just wasn’t entertaining even when compared to that film that was also proven to be a big fake propaganda campaign. In my view, it’s definitely not a buy – but if you’re curious, it can’t hurt to rent it.
Please look for my upcoming reviews on Machete, Devil, The American and Takers!