“If you like the film, get out there on Twitter and spread the word.” This was the Sarah Palinish edict from Eli Roth, in his taped preface for the preview screenings of The Last Exorcism. Whether or not the assembled flock did his bidding, the exhortation raises a couple of points. First, it reinforces what everyone knows, that movie marketing is changing shape, as a flurry of presumably positive tweets will boost ticket sales.
Second, and more interestingly, Roth’s appeal sets up a frame for the film that follows, which also adopts a faux direct appeal to viewers. Yet another Blair Witch wannabe, The Last Exorcism sets up a relationship between on-screen speakers and “you,” addressed as such. In this movie, the primary speaker is Cotton (Patrick Fabian), fourth-generation minister in Baton Rouge who’s agreed to be filmed in order to clear his conscience. He’s spent years, he explains to the documentarist Iris (Iris Bahr) and her unseen cameraman, fooling his audience. An exceptionally entertaining sermonist, he waves his arms and cajoles his listeners: they’ll go to heaven as long as they do what he says. And yet, following a lively performance, Cotton confides to the camera, “As spontaneous as that act may have seemed to the congregation, we knew what we were doing.”
Cotton’s honesty is winning. But as his wife Shanna (Shanna Forrestall) describes him as a “natural creative, he entertains like nobody’s business,” you’re reminded that each moment he appears on screen is yet another piece of his performance. Even when Cotton declares an end to his boomiest business, the exorcisms he performs for cash, you’re inclined to wonder what he’s selling. Iris agrees to go along for the “last exorcism,” the one Cotton will perform and then expose as fake on screen. Wouldn’t you know, this exorcism doesn’t go quite like all the others he’s done for decades. He puts on his linen suit and heads out into the boonies, “a perfect breeding ground for evil,” he smirks.
The subject is Nell (Ashley Bell), predictably pale and long-haired, a 16-year-old living on a farm with her widowed dad Louis (Louis Herthum) and older brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). Much as Cotton expects, the symptoms of possession include dead livestock and Nell’s ostensible memory loss. As soon as the crew arrives, Caleb is trying to chase them off, suspicious of their intention and especially, the fact that they’ve brought along a camera. His aggression provides the coming adventure with a rednecky frame and an easy rationale for judging it. Cotton acts the expert (he’s seen folks like this before) and Iris is genuinely unnerved; never mind that Caleb is correct to distrust the visitors, as they’ve come to mislead his family. “I don’t think Nell’s the problem,” Caleb warns. “If anything happens to her, I will hurt you. I don’t care of the camera’s watching. It can watch all it wants.”
Because you presumably grasp all these perspectives at once, you’re in something of a privileged position. At the same time, what you actually see is limited by the POV camera, mostly confined to what Cotton directs it to look at. (That said, this film includes a number of cheats too, including a musical soundtrack to enhance the scary parts and a few exterior shots to establish setting, unmotivated by any “real time” documenting.) Thus, as Cotton shows how he manages the effects of the exorcism, close-ups reveal his tools—chemicals to make water bubble, wires to move the bed, an iPod to provide echoey moans.
Cotton presents all this in a matter-of-fact manner, alternately bored and cynical, charming and self-aggrandizing. The camera, however, offers the occasional peek at significant plot points, as when Caleb spots the bubbling water trick. This grants you a little more information than Cotton, and so, importantly, offers you a perspective of him that’s not strictly his own or quite beyond his control. This introduces a useful question about documentary filmmaking—how do makers affect their subjects, in collusion and also in contradiction? How does the cameraman’s focus on Caleb’s reaction (in addition to his dad’s closed-eyes acquiescence and his sister’s fearful surprise) align the family dynamic and also set up a relationship between Caleb and you?
This question is exacerbated when Nell’s situation turns more complicated than Cotton anticipates. It could be that she’s suffering actual abuse. And it could be that Louis or Caleb has something to do with that abuse. As much as Cotton tries to slot this experience alongside what he’s seen before, Iris begins to worry about the girl. Now the filmmakers’ obligation seems to change: they’re not just recording what happens in front of them, but they’re assessing what they’re observing and feeling moral (not to mention legal) concerns over how they respond to it.
While Louis reveals his own problems—he’s been drinking since he lost his wife and he’s a true believer in God and Stan, especially when he sees Nell’s bed move, thanks to Cotton’s wires—he’s not exactly a sympathetic figure here. Iris is especially doubtful of his good intentions (“He’s got a lot of guns in the house”), and the camera observes what becomes her ongoing debate with Cotton: they pace and fret, the cameraman patiently holding up his end.
That is, the camera is watching all it wants, as Caleb suggested, even if it’s not always clear whether what it’s watching is staged or not. When the camera is picked up by someone else, when it’s used as a weapon and shows blood on its lens, you see The Last Exorcism is making another point too, however thuddingly: cameras have effects. As you recognize that this will not be “the last exorcism” after all (it’s an industry, just as Cotton has asserted, both on screen and elsewhere), you also see that the faux doc’s faux and real elements become increasingly difficult to differentiate. It’s true that this dilemma is more or less mirrored in the real world, wherever you locate that (in Roth’s intro? in your tweet?). But in this version, in The Last Exorcism, the dilemma is increasingly simplified, the scares increasingly silly, and the camera—for all the watching it does—increasingly irrelevant.