The Last Exorcism
I went to see The Last Exorcism yesterday at the Galaxy Highland Theater. I was pleasantly surprised at how good it is. Part of the horror sub-genre of demon possession and also part mock-umentary with hand-held camera, in the vein of Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch Project, it is fresh and original and doesn’t rely on tired clichés.
The movie goes in with tongue in cheek. This is a smart way to handle it, since we as an audience are jaded with the conceit of demon possession. The beginning of the movie establishes the movie’s premise. The reason the movie is called The Last Exorcism is because the exorcist, Rev. Cotton Marcus, has decided that this will be his last exorcism.
Cotton is part con-man and showman and part earnest family man. He is having a crisis of faith, after his hearing impaired son was helped by a surgery, and he realized after the surgery that he first thanked the doctor rather thanking God or attributing his son’s healing to a miracle.
He’s also questioning the family business of preaching and exorcism after reading that most victims of demon possession are children and that an autistic little boy died during an exorcism, after being suffocated while a plastic bag was placed over his head. Cotton is sincere in his desire to help children. He wants the film crew to document his last exorcism in order to expose the way exorcists can prey upon the beliefs of the weak.
Where Cotton is a fake is in his life as a minister. The prologue, if you will, shows Cotton with his family and with his congregation and preacher father. It shows his gifts for communion with an audience. He is very effective in mesmerizing his congregation and in communicating his message in a palatable way. At one point, he uses a magic trick involving slight of hand and a deck of cards to illustrate a point during a sermon.
Later, he tells the documentary filmmakers that he has invited to come along with him on this last exorcism that he can insert his mother’s recipe for banana nut bread into his preaching and still keep the audience enraptured. The filmmaker doesn’t believe him, and, sure enough, about halfway through his speech, he intones about ripe bananas, sugar, flour and eggs in a bowl, and the congregation responds with a liturgy of Praise Jesus, with no break in the action.
Cotton receives a letter from a poor farmer named Sweetzer. He doesn’t bother to read the letter in detail. He summarizes something like, “Dead farm animals, blah blah blah.” And just that easily and dismissively, he makes the decision to travel to the reclusive Sweetzer family’s farm in rural Louisiana.
Once there, Cotton gets attacked by the victim’s brother, Caleb. Asking for directions, Cotton gets told by the Sweetzer son to turn around and go back where he came from. When he doesn’t immediately do so, Caleb throws rocks at Cotton’s back window.
Cotton gets Louis, the Sweetzer dad, to approve the use of cameras, and pretty soon he starts taking inventory of the family and their emotional health. It’s pretty easy to figure out that the state of their psychological health is tenuous at best. Louis has lost his wife, who was daughter Nell’s best friend, and since then Louis has withdrawn their family to the farm. Nell is home schooled and forbidden to attend the local Protestant church. Her only human contact would seem to be her father and her brother. Her father is grieving, and as Caleb tells us, is drowning his sorrows nightly in a bottle.
Nell, in case you haven’t already guessed, is our victim. Here’s one cliché that is steadfastly maintained in this horror film. The victim is a young, attractive teenaged girl. Nell’s father has called on Cotton because his daughter experiences nightly blackouts. After she wakes up, barnyard animals have been slaughtered, and her clothes are soaked with blood. Nell doesn’t remember what happened but assumes that she must be guilty. All of Cotton’s questions clearly show his very real concern for this young girl and his belief that the mysterious shenanigans at the farm are more likely to be exorcised by a psychiatrist and the continuing care of a local cleric than a sham exorcist.
Nevertheless, Cotton goes through with the exorcism and shows us the tricks that he uses to deliver a performance worthy of a movie. He throws something in a tub of water that Nell’s feet have been placed in, in order to make the water temperature increase and the water bubble. He hides sound equipment that makes over 800 simulated demon sounds in the bedroom where he is going to perform the exorcism. His rings are equipped with the ability to actually shock the little girl. A wire attached to a picture frame makes the picture appear to move. The bed is made to seemingly lift the ground.
During the exorcism, Caleb, who has now figured out that Cotton is a fake and no real threat at all, gives Cotton an actual thumbs up. After the exorcism, Cotton and the film crew go to a local hotel to spend the night. Cotton counts the money Louis Sweetzer gives him and admonishes Louis that the Lord has told him that he needs to stop drinking.
And then, here’s where it gets interesting. The camera captures Cotton calling home to his wife and little boy. We know, from Cotton’s comment that the only thing he wants is health insurance, that he has already made the decision to get a “real” job in the punch-a-clock secular world, in addition to quitting the exorcisms. But at this point Nell shows up, miles away from the family farm, seemingly on foot, blacked out, and making inappropriate sexual gestures while barefoot and naked beneath a plain white cotton nightgown.
And Cotton, determined to help this girl, and probably suspecting sexual abuse on the part of the father, goes back with Nell and the film crew to The Sweetzer Family Farm. I would ruin the movie for you if I summarized the entire plot, and there’s been a lot of criticism on the internet of The Rosemary’s Baby like ending. It is somewhat ambiguous. However, I think that those reviews miss the point of the movie.
The protagonist of the movie is Cotton, not Nell. We are not so much invested in Nell’s future as we are in Cotton’s. The man who, at the beginning of the movie says that you can’t really believe in God without believing in Satan, clearly doesn’t believe in Satan. By the end of the movie, he is not so much trying to save Nell as he is interested in saving Nell’s soul. He takes a cross and the word of God on his lips and confronts the evil scene in front of him with the conviction of someone who really believes that with Jesus on his side, he can overcome the devil. And that is the point of the movie. By the end of the exorcism, it is Cotton who has been transformed.