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The Last Exorcism: When Good Movies Have Horrible Endings…

By Preston Garrett · September 2, 2010

Movies about exorcism.  They’ve been a cultural staple since 1973 when director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was released.  The film was a watershed horror piece, garnering 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor nods in every category except for Actor in a Leading Role.  It’s beyond difficult to think of any other horror film that’s been as critically acclaimed at the time of its release (The Shining did get its wide praise until long after the fact), and honored by the Academy simultaneously.  “What about The Silence of the Lambs though?”  Good point, but when I say “horror” I’m talking about the demonically supernatural; inexplicable apparitions; mortal manifestations of God versus the Devil within terrifying contexts.

This is what differentiates “horror” from “thriller” in the grand scheme of genres.  Though films like The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, and even Fatal Attraction are disturbing to the point of inducing nightmares, they lack that otherworldly element.  Humans are still in control of their destiny, though some humans have the power to choose the fate of their peers more than others (i.e. Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.)  To play contradict myself off the bat, Halloween is certainly a thriller by the definition I’ve laid out above, but it’s still a horror movie too, yet a specific subset of horror – the slasher film.  It subscribes to certain conventions (and arguably created a lot of these conventions) – the faceless, almost alien killer; copious boob flashing; adolescent sex; a nerdy, unlikely protagonist; etc.  In a way, it’s simply the faceless killer (Michael Myers) that makes Halloween and many other movies “horror” films – there’s simply an heightened scariness to the anonymity of a ruthless murderer that practically makes them demonic, or a soldier of the Devil himself (the same could certainly be said for the Saw films.)  As Scream poignantly points out, many times they have motives, but their motives go beyond the call of vengeance.  It becomes cold blooded, seemingly random, and quick.  

As for The Last Exorcism, director Daniel Stamm and writing duo Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have created a film, likely unintentionally, that walks the incredibly fine line of thriller and horror up until the final minutes of the climax.  What’s so smart about it is that they make you guess throughout the entirety of the running time whether this is a supernatural horror flick, or a thriller formed out of an elaborate ruse.

I’ll admit, before I delve any deeper, that The Last Exorcism is most definitely a flawed film.  I’m not one to gratuitously lambast a movie for the sake thereof, but Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have written one of the most dissatisfying, thrown together endings to any movie I’ve seen in recent memory.  The final moments of the film made me completely angry, and totally annoyed.  When the credits rolled I literally smacked my head multiple times and cried, “Really?!” over and over again.

Yes, those are strong, borderline gratuitous statements, but there’s a point.  The main reason the ending so negatively affected me was for the simple reason that the rest of the film was so interesting – a constant guessing game with a unique spin on the outplayed exorcism horror film.  

Shot as if it’s a documentary (yes, this is becoming outplayed as well, but this movie would have been completely silly otherwise), we meet Reverend Cotton Marcus (played excellently by Patrick Fabian, an incredibly underused, very talented actor who I first became acquainted with on Saved by the Bell: The College Years – no, I’m not embarrassed of that.)  We learn that Cotton has been a preacher since the age of 10 – bred and trained by his father to get butts in the pews, and to make a buck at the same time.  Though the senior Marcus is a tried and true man of God, the younger Cotton Marcus admits that he’s pretty sure he doesn’t believe in God, the Devil, angels, demons – none of it.  He considers himself good at what he does, that he provides people with a service they need and enjoy, and will keep on doing it as long as it pays the bills…. but he’s done with performing exorcisms…

Though Cotton is a pseudo-saint, his morals are certainly intact.  He lets us know that he’s making this documentary to prove to the world that demon possession is a hoax – that people simply become overwhelmed with guilt about a regrettable action from their past and manifest this guilt with a very particular, religion influenced psychosis.  He’s performed exorcisms for the simple fact that people need to hear, see, and go through very specific motions to get the guilt catharsis they need to continue their lives in peace.  With the use of magician’s trickery (a smoking crucifix, a hidden iPod with a “demon sounds” playlist, and rigged, shaking beds), Cotton has provided people with this nuanced service with much success for years.  

We arrive at a time in Cotton’s life when he’s over it.  Too many people have been injured by delusional preacher’s who use violent methods to extract “demons.”  This film is Cotton’s chance to prove once and for all that demons are indeed phony.

Soon Cotton heads to the depths of Louisiana farm country to take a call from a family in need – their daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is apparently possessed by a demon.  

The rest of the movie is basically as follows – Cotton performs an “exorcism” and collects his money.  The same night, Nell mysteriously appears at his hotel, totally lethargic, and strange.  Cotton urges the family to seek psychiatric help for Nell – they refuse, and Nell continues to act totally bizarre, killing a cat, slicing open her equally strange brother’s face open, and contorting in all sorts of strange ways.  These kinds of events are typical to the exorcism film, but there’s an ongoing caveat that it’s very feasible that Nell could be putting on a show for everyone because she’s guilty about one of many hypothesized things:

-That her dad beats her
-That her dad rapes her
-That she got raped by someone
-That she’s pregnant
-That she’s traumatized by the death of her mother

We’re left guessing which one of these things could explain why she might be acting in such ludicrous ways, which is what really makes the film interesting.  So many times during The Last Exorcism I kept wanting to believe that demons were real and that Nell was possessed, but Cotton creates a logical argument for every bizarre action she takes.  

Again, the ending finally sheds light on Nell’s “condition,” and it’s ultimately an insult to the the audience’s intelligence.  It could have been fantastic, but it feels as if writers Botko and Gurland got a case of the lazies and slapped it together.  They could have even kept the same ending, but gotten there in a different, more drawn out way and it still would have been good.  My guess is that the production ran out of money and/or was forced to cut out a lot of the script due to time constraints.  

Notice my lack of providing spoilers, which is something I almost always provide for movies like this.  The caveat to all this is that in spite of the ending, the film is worth a viewing on Netflix (and anymore, this will probably be within about 2 months.)  It’s great fun to walk that fine line of thriller and horror, even though the final moments of the film feel like a mish mash of the following ambiguous examples:

The Blair Witch Project
Rosemary’s Baby
The Goonies
Wolf Creek

2 out of 4 dunce cap endings (it would have been 3 1/2 if the ending had been done right)