'The Last Exorcism': The Camera Can Watch All It Wants

Yet another Blair Witch wannabe, The Last Exorcism sets up a relationship between on-screen speakers and "you," addressed as such.

The Last Exorcism

Director: Daniel Stamm
Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-08-27 (General release)

"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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.