First of all, let me make it clear that I’m an Eli Roth fan. His terrifyingly intense film Hostel is more psychologically disturbing than nausea inducing. While being as creepy as you want a horror film to be, Roth’s masterpiece held up to ridicule American’s tendency to see evil as something foreign, to be terrorized by torture markets in a frightening, inhumane and ahistorical “eastern Europe” while countenancing actual torture by its national security agencies.
Given my own research interest in the pop culture image of the devil in the United States, I was of course more than interested to see the results of Roth turning his hand to the production of an exorcism drama. The subject has produced innumerable bad movies and, in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, one of the most important films of the twentieth century. There was every reason to be excited with what Roth and his director, Daniel Stamm, could do with this.
Unfortunately, the film was a disappointment in almost every sense and the DVD release manages to make it worse. The ending of the film is something of a surprise, but largely because its so mind-twistingly stupid, stupid in a way that calls the film’s better elements into question.
You don’t see this coming at first. The Last Exorcism begins promisingly with the story of a documentary film being made about an evangelical preacher and rising religious superstar played wonderfully by Patrick Fabian. Superb acting really does carry the first act, highlighted both by Fabian and by Ashley Bell (who you may have seen in The United States of Tara).
Fabian and Bell’s work turns out to be elegant performances wasted on tripe. The film rather quickly goes off the rails and, by the conclusion, is feeding like a parasite off of the worst Satan-porn ever manufactured by the Christian right. In fact, it goes back, without irony and complexity, to the unhappy ‘80s when newsmagazine 20/20 had a special about satanic worship, preachers warned of diabolical messages hidden in rock albums and community moral panics led to accusations of a complete farrago known as “satanic ritual abuse”.
The extras on the DVD are what truly ruin what little good there is here. In fact, they make the film worse than a laughing stock. The best/worst example of this is the inclusion of the text of what the DVD producers call “the protection prayer.” You probably weren’t expecting to get a prayer included in your special features! The “protection prayer” will be recognizable to some Catholics as the prayer to St. Michael that was common at the end of Mass before Vatican II.
Why is this remnant of tradionalist Catholic devotionalism present on the DVD? If you watch the featurette with the already suspect title of “Real Stories of Exorcism” you discover why. The opening text contains a caution from the filmmakers that “religious experts” have said that this program could be dangerous to your spiritual health. You might, the message then suggests, want to say the protection prayer included in the DVD special features.
I might buy that this is irony if it stood by itself. Unfortunately, the featurette really does introduce us to someone who claims they have been possessed by the devil. Her face hidden in shadow, the subject describes hearing bumping sounds in her house. This is interspersed with several alleged experts, one described as “a former Jesuit” and another as “a spiritual warfare expert” (!?!).
If all of this sloppy sensationalism isn’t enough, the featurette concludes with the claim that the crew and production staff experienced some odd happenings while making the film and thus decided not to use the name of the demon for fear, I guess, that it would jump through our LCD screen and eat us. This is an obvious and silly reference to the urban legends about “strange occurrences” that surrounded the making of The Exorcist, a fairly common claim for cult movies. Or maybe the demon’s name was something not very threatening, like Bob or Paul.
The great horror filmmakers are great ironists. James Whale transformed the Bride of Frankenstein into a parable of gender and alienation. John Carpenter created the modern slasher film and critiqued life in the suburbs all at the same time in Halloween.
Roth and his director have just given us a film built, without irony, on urban legend, moral panic and a theology of the demonic. Given his past work, that’s a terrible shame. As a past fan, I can’t even understand it.