The Last Exorcism
Patrick Fabian, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 27 Aug 2010 (General release); 2010)
It was one of the most unusual movie intros in a long time, slightly reminiscent of William Castle and his “classic” carnival barker come-ons from the ‘50s and ‘60s. As the audience sat murmuring, the standard 7:30 screening time arriving with light dimming precision, a typical AMC theater ad announced the arrival of “Our Feature Presentation.” Prepared for a found footage look at a crooked preacher and the day he came face to face with a real case of demonic possession, many hoped that The Last Exorcism would be a Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity style scare show. What few could have expected was that Executive Producer and FoQ (Friend of Quentin) Eli Roth would be the first thing they’d see on the 70 foot tall theater wall.
Smiling like a cheerful Cheshire and looking directly into the crowd, the man responsible for Cabin Fever, the Hostel films (and by extrapolation, the rise in torture porn) and the memorable turn as ‘The Bear Jew’ in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was present to ask “a favor.” Convinced that a movie like The Last Exorcism would never get a fair shake from the mainstream media, he was here to convince this ‘privileged’ preview audience to use the most potent form of publicity - word of mouth - to tell the rest of genre nation of how ‘awesome’ this movie was/is. Arguing that only true fans could understand the terror about to unravel, he then went on to add instigation to injury with a potent promise, something that actually earned a few gasps from the attendees.
Roth would go onto explain that Lionsgate, the company distributing the film on 27 August 2010, would not only use the opinion of professional film reviews in their blurbs, but those of the “Twittics” as well. Elaborating, he instructed everyone to get on their Twitter accounts, use a specific @suchandsuch address, and post their raves about what they had seen. Then, for the ensuing marketing campaign, Roth promised that Joe Six-pack’s journeyman judgment about The Last Exorcism would be quoted, right along with those of Uncle Roger and Father Scott (presuming they loved the film as well). As a last little slice of surreal celebrity whoring, the still smiling filmmaker asked all to “tweet” him at his own account to let him know personally the final word on the film.
It was a move of either genius or continued unobtainable creative consciousness raising. For a movie that already has as much mixed buzz as The Last Exorcism does, getting a really famous face - at least one directly involved in the production and known to the demo dying to see the final results - to pander directly to their eerie elitism is a true double edged sword. There is already enough of the typical “scariest film ever” horror hype to drown the expectations of a true fan, and when you offer up a chance to chat with a real live celeb, upon the promise that your words will wind up in a trailer or TV commercial, you build a brief buffer between you and the eventual entertainment outcome - good or bad.
Of course, there are dozens of things wrong with Roth’s approach. By opening the sneak preview in the aforementioned manner, he makes it very clear that the typical critical cabal need not apply. Even with a row of local press staring back at him in semi-insulted disbelief, he makes it very clear that the thoughts of the unwashed and untrained are just as (or by massive implication, far more) important than said scribes. Time and time again, the message is made abundantly clear - The Last Exorcism cannot succeed by relying on the traditional views of the jaundiced paid journalist. Instead, he falls back on the WoM ways of building pre-release excitement and asks that the easily impressed members of the crowd join with him.
But it’s really a ruse. By setting up a behaviorally psychological approach, “bait and banter”, so to speak, the viewer becomes the equivalent of a motion picture Pavlov’s dog. High profile filmmaker asks you to “like” his efforts and then wants you to personally communicate said sentiment to him directly via the new soap box known as the social network. It turns everything predicable and predisposed. In order to talk with Roth, you have to enjoy what he clearly thinks is a great fright fest. It’s only natural to want to join in. Roth even gets mileage with his “us against them” approach, the audience now feeling indirectly invested, and Lionsgate gets at significant percentage of the viewers to voice a less than reliable opinion. It’s win/win, even if the truth is tainted. The promise of recognition is disingenuous, designed to sway the easily influenced, untrained eye.
Roth knows this, and he knows the reaction of the established media. If he ever reads this, he’d argue that his intro was “exactly the point”. We snobbish journalists, we critics who comb the cinematic landscape year in and year out for gemstones and junk, always think that the general public are pigs when it comes to consensus. We scoff at garbagemen like Michael Bay and then bellyache when his Transformers films earn umpteen billions of dollars. Heck, we’ve come to label him personally as the Antichrist for his blood and guts gratuity. We think we know better than the focus grouped gradient pinpointed since we have a well honed viewpoint (arguably) that comes from experience, perspective, as well as a right to be entertained. As with most of the nu-media, the message is abundantly clear - it’s time to take the cultural conversation away from those invested in its outcome and give it back to those who actually live it, day to day, dollar to dollar.
It’s a risk, and when you consider the product being pitched, a real gamble. Roth’s not offering up another redolent R-rated gore fest filled with splatter fetishism. The Last Exorcism is a PG-13 paean to a certain style of fright flick circa the early ‘70s. It doesn’t rely on CGI or extreme imagery to create its creepshowboating and waits until the very last minute to pull the plot twist wool over everyone’s eyes. Arguably, it could usher in a new era of evocative horror - that is, if it was any good - while still struggling with that old hand-held shaky cam POV conceit that was tired after a certain trip to Burkittsville. In fact, Exorcism owes such a debt to The Blair Witch Project, from set-up to send-off, that Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez should sue. For Roth, such a reaction would simply be more grist for his grassroots mill. Whether such begging works or not remains to be seen.