It has become increasingly difficult to build a mockumentary that the audience accepts as “real” on any level, even as the format has become increasingly popular with filmmakers who often use the style as a crutch.
Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko could be considered pioneers of the format, and I published a piece a few weeks ago that repurposed some things I wrote about them and their earlier efforts in the field. Right away, people went nuts all over again, accusing them of being mean and cruel and damn near sociopathic, and you should read the piece I wrote so you get some sense of what it was they’re alleged to have done.
The thing is, I never really “believed” any of their films, but I think they ring true in the way they tap the awful feelings many people have about family, or the way they feed into the things people suspect about fraternity hazing, or in the case of the very good “Mail Order Wife,” the way they comment on the very nature of making a documentary and stepping into someone else’s real life in search of something you can digest as “entertainment.” They’ve always used the form to play with that tension between “I’m watching a film” and “documentaries are real,” and it never seems like they use it as a crutch instead of making a “real” movie.
This new film is being sold heavily on the name of Eli Roth, and when I interviewed Eli this week, he was clear on what it was that he brought to the table: money. Simply put, thanks to the “Hostel” films, Eli brings in a certain amount of money on foreign pre-sales when he attaches his name to a film in a “presented by” capacity, much like Quentin Tarantino did for Eli on the first “Hostel.” The script, though, was written by Gurland and Botko, who have primarily traded in dark comedy up till now, and who were actually going to co-direct this one until they got the opportunity to make “The Virginity Hit” instead.
Daniel Stamm stepped in to direct, and that combination of sensibilities may turn out to be the best thing that could have happened for the film. Stamm’s feature “A Necessary Death” is another great example of what happens when you play with people’s expectations about what is or isn’t real on film. Ostensibly a documentary about a filmmaker who places an ad for people considering suicide, saying he wants to film the entire process from decision to action, “A Necessary Death” is haunting and upsetting and fiction, from start to finish. Seeing it at a festival, it was obvious that the film’s framework really unsettled people, and once they realized it wasn’t a real documentary, a percentage of them got very angry. I saw the same thing happen at Butt-Numb-A-Thon when we showed “The Poughkeepsie Tapes.” Audiences want to know where they stand at the start of a film, and the refusal to give them that comfort is a powerful choice for a filmmaker.
“The Last Exorcism” tells the story of Cotton Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian, who was raised to be an evangelist by his father. Cotton has never believed in God, but he’s always been adept at manipulating people, and he’s made a very good life for himself and for his family using God’s name. In particular, he and his father have done very well in the exorcism business, performing hundreds of them over the years. As the film begins, though, Cotton is undergoing a crisis of conscience, unsure he can continue preying on people’s better natures. He read a story about an exorcism gone wrong in which a young boy was suffocated to death by a priest trying to “help” him, and Cotton started dreaming about his own son dying the same way. Realizing that this game is life or death to many people, Cotton decides to allow a film crew to document him performing one more exorcism so that people can see proof on film about how fake it is, and how the relief that is felt by the “victims” is entirely psychosomatic.
Oh, Cotton. You don’t think it’s going to be that easy… do you?
Cotton picks one letter at random out of the mail he gets, convinced that they’re all the same, all equally phony, all of them ideal marks for this con he runs. He ends up answering the letter of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), who is convinced that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed. Livestock have been murdered, and since her mother’s death, the girl has undergone a profound personality shift. It seems like a perfect case for Cotton to use to make his point, and with the documentary crew in tow, Cotton heads for the backwoods of Louisiana to find the Sweetzer farm and prove once and for all that there is no such thing as possession.
What’s most interesting about the way the film unfolds is the slow-burn nature of the scares, with very little attention paid to typical shock and jumps. “The Last Exorcism” instead focuses on the idea of isolation and what can happen when one person or one family or one community is too closed off from other people. I am terrified of the way people in this nation (and around the world, to some extent, although I’m more concerned with what I see in my own backyard) seem more and more determined to bury their head whenever confronted with ideas or situations that make them miserable, and more and more communities seem to be closing themselves off, which leads to all sorts of strange and dangerous ideas taking hold. It is never a good thing to shut yourself off from the world out of fear and paranoia, and it’s almost inevitable that things will eventually implode when you do that. To the credit of the filmmakers, “The Last Exorcism” seems to be heading in one direction when it starts, but it quickly starts throwing left hooks at the audience, the narrative heading some very dark and sad places. The final ten minutes will be the most divisive of the film, and for many audiences, the big choices made by Stamm and Gurland and Botko in those moments will feel like a betrayal at first. If you really pay attention, though, the seeds of those final moments are present from the very start of the film, and there’s a suggestion that the game we’re watching play out is much larger than Cotton or anyone else suspects.
Technically, “The Last Exorcism” is expertly made, maybe too much so. I don’t really buy it as a documentary, not that I ever expected to. It’s just filmed too well, with too much coverage, and with the camera always in the exact right place. Even so, if you suffer from motion-sickness during real hand-held photography, be warned. This film sent my co-writer Scott running for the door 20 minutes in because he has such a strong physical reaction to this sort of photography.
I like that Cotton is playing to the camera from the very start, though, and if you enjoy this film, I would strongly urge you to track down the movie “Marjoe,” a real documentary from the ’70s about Marjoe Gortner, known to many in my generation as a crappy actor who made a bunch of cheesy exploitation films in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Before that, though, he was raised to be an evangelist, and he allowed a camera crew to capture the moment where he renounced it all and revealed just how empty the entire experience had been for him. It’s a blisteringly angry film, and there’s a lot of Marjoe in Cotton. Patrick Fabian gives a wry, intelligent performance, and he manages to make Cotton sympathetic even when he’s confessing some truly craven behavior. Ashley Bell is excellent as Nell, the young girl at the center of the story, and the physical demands of the role allow her to show off some unnerving tricks involving simple back bends and neck pops. Because the FX in the film are applied with a feather touch, almost everything is left to the actors to accomplish, and it grounds the horror even in the most overtly supernatural moments. As a result, no matter what you see, you can accept that it could still just be the efforts of a sad and damaged girl, acting out in a way that she knows will break her father. It’s human-scaled horror, which is rare enough these days, and enough of it works that “The Last Exorcism” lingers long after the debate about what is or isn’t “real” wraps up.
“The Last Exorcism” opens everywhere today.
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