Last Exorcism, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe Powers takes a trip down South for a good, old fashioned demon hunt...
The son of one of the South’s most famous exorcists, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) was once on his way to exorcist super stardom, but grew disillusioned after learning of the accidental death of a possession victim. Soon after Marcus agrees to participate in a documentary feature dedicated to proving exorcism on the whole is a fraud. After randomly choosing one of the many letters he gets requesting his expertise, Marcus and the film crew are off to the home of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), where an innocent teenage girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) has exhibited signs of possession. At first everything seems under control, but it’s soon clear that this isn’t going to be an average night of demon exorcism.
There are dozens of overused gimmicks and genres found in the horror genre, made all the more tedious thanks to a reinvigorated onslaughts of straight to video productions. There are two things I really didn’t think horror fans needed more of – mockumentary/found footage style productions, and exorcism movies (well, and zombie and vampire movies, but that isn't pertinent here). Cloverfield and REC kind of pushed me to my mockumentary limit (it was with a heavy heart that I found myself recommending Lake Mungo), and the exorcism genre hasn’t done anything to impress me outside the original Exorcist. The Last Exorcism, a title that is clearly meant to invoke thoughts of finality, was not on my must see radar. I was so busy I wasn’t even going to bother with reviewing this Blu-ray until I started catching up on the reviews and word of mouth, both of which were so positive I realized I would be remiss of me to skip over the film, despite the prejudice of my indifference.
The Last Exorcism clearly follows the structure of most mockumentary features (found footage comparisons work pretty well too), and the basic tropes found in your average exorcism movie (a protagonist losing faith, an innocent girl affected, etc). However, writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, and director Daniel Stamm are clever fellas, and fulfill tropes and stereotypes in order to meet the audiences expectations early in the film, and even pokes fun at them. Around the half hour point, we are allowed behind the exorcist’s curtain while he sets up a phony supernatural experience. This lulls us, and opens us up to being disturbed when the ‘shit gets real’. Even after things start going awry we’re still left to assume normal, run of the mill child abuse and mental anguish is responsible for the more horror heavy stuff. Of course we know as horror fans and regular film-goers that the supernatural is going to be the ultimate answer (especially those of us that saw the teaser trailer), but audiences that aren’t as readily open to the terrors of the supernatural are given the proper time to grow acclimated to the ‘unexplainable’. Unfortunately, the climax is slapdash enough to slightly undermine what works throughout the rest of the runtime, and ends the film on a semi-silly down note that simply didn’t work for me.
Stamm’s strongest suit is his sense of pacing. The Last Exorcism moves quickly without feeling rushed (until the not so great final few minutes), and the story unfolds with almost impossible precision. The mockumentary visuals create a strong sense of immediacy, though the more outstandingly ‘scary’ images aren’t entirely indelible, and didn’t stick with me very long after the film was over (like many people I was tricked into thinking The Blair Witch Project was a good movie because I was still tweaked by some of the images for weeks after the film was over). The overall experience is pretty realistic, but all this fake documentary style and wizardry still wouldn’t work had it not been for the film’s super strong casting. The unknown actors are lead by Patrick Fabian as Reverend Cotton Marcus. Fabian has the tough job of creating a likable lead out of a character plagued by hubris, and an obvious contempt for the people he ‘helps’. Between winks at the camera, and a genuine sense of heroism the actor charms the negatives right out of his performance. Actress Ashley Bell isn’t only believable, but she creates two genuinely different characters in her performance, meaning she’s successfully acting as if she’s acting during the first half of the film. More importantly the entire cast doesn’t draw attention to themselves as actors, but as genuine human beings trapped in an impossible situation.
Based on the trailers I was expecting a much dirtier looking production than this. I think I assumed that Last Exorcism was shot on 16mm. In truth the film was apparently shot using high end 35mm films and equipment. This transfer is so clean and clear overall I was surprised it wasn’t shot digitally. The film is still shot in a rough enough manner that the transfer doesn’t look perfect, however. Fine details are often obscured by shaky, unfocused camera work (the autofocus is enough to make susceptible audience members a bit sea sick), and director Daniel Stamm doesn’t take many chances to work stylized lighting into the visual mix, leading to less than sharp contrast. The really dark stuff during the film’s nighttime climax is relatively grainy, but there aren’t any problems with compression noise or edge enhancement anywhere on the transfer.
The Last Exorcism comes fitted with a well rounded DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. Early sections of the film utilize a sort of hyper-realistic sound design, recreating precisely what we’d expect from a documentary film utilizing a single boom microphone set up. The dialogue is clear, but purposefully inconsistent in volume, and sound effects are tweaked to blast volume when the audience needs to be put on their toes. There is very little musical score, and almost no surround sound effects during these scenes. Even the demon sound effects we know Marcus is faking are presented flatter, and really only in the front channels. Then strange stuff that is completely out of the on-screen film crew’s control starts happening, and the DTS-HD soundtrack opens right up, including unmotivated LFE throb, and creepy, abstract musical score. Then the surround channels really come to life, as eerie effects move behind the audience in a convincing manner.
This reasonably packed Blu-ray disc’s extras begin with three audio commentary tracks. For the sake of time (like I said, I almost didn’t review this one at all) I sampled sections from each of these tracks in order to review them, so my comments refer to these sections rather than the entire track. The first track features producers Eli Roth, Eric Newman and Tom Bliss. Unsurprisingly, Roth rules over most of the track, and subject matter covers more of the producers’ side of the project, including mostly the process of gathering the crew and covering the production costs. Overall this particular commentary is a bit dry. The second track features director Daniel Stamm with actors Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian and Louis Herthum (my disc actually defaults to this track rather than the DTS-HD track for some reason). Fabian and Stamm are the most vocal members of the commentary, but Bell offers plenty of information as well, and Herthum isn’t entirely silent. This is the more informative crew track, and the tone is pleasantly light. The final commentary is entitled ‘Witness to an Exorcism, and features a haunting victim named Stephanie, clinical psychologist Selena Mathews, and a ‘spiritual warfare councilor’ named Katie. This track has been edited together from three separate interviews, and none of the participants’ words really pertain to the on-screen actions. Still, this is a clever addition to the disc, and an intriguing way to experience the film for the third or fourth time. There’s also a lot more information on the subject here than found in the related ‘Real Stories of Exorcism’ featurette also included in the extras area.
Next up is the aforementioned ‘Real Stories of Exorcism’ (13:40, HD), a heavy handed, but well produced and entertaining mini-documentary with religious scholars, a possession victim, and other pertinent interview subjects. The problem here is that this is a single story of exorcism, so the plural in the title doesn’t make any sense. This is followed by ‘The Devil You Know: The Making of The Last Exorcism’ (20:20, HD), a brief behind the scenes featurette featuring interview footage with the director, writers, producers and actors, along with choice cuts from the film itself, and Daniel Stamm’s first film, which was also a mockumentary. This extra covers more than the usual EPK, but still feels a lot like an extended advertising piece. The disc also includes audition footage from the three lead actors – Ashley Bell (2:30, SD), Patrick Fabian (9:30, SD), Caleb Landry (1:40, SD) and Louis Herthum (1:30, SD). The extras are wrapped up with the 2009 Cannes Film Festival teaser (2:30, HD), the theatrical trailer, a text based screen containing the ‘Protection Prayer’ in both English and Latin, and other Lionsgate trailers. A DVD and Digital Copy are also included.
The Last Exorcism is a fresher and better film than I was expecting, but not quite as successful as some of the more excitable reviews might lead you to believe. The documentary feel holds tight right up to the all to brief climax (side note: abrupt climaxes seem to be a mockumentary/found footage trademark, from Cannibal Holocaust to Blair Witch Project), which unfortunately doesn’t really chill the bones as the filmmakers likely intended. Frankly I didn’t find the film particularly frightening at all, but really respect the art of faking real life, and consider the overall production quite successful. This Blu-ray looks and sounds about as perfect as a purposefully imperfect film can, and the extras include three solid commentary tracks, one of which fills in the real life facts of the possession phenomenon from three different points of view.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release's image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 4th January 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH and Spanish
Extras: Producers Commentary, Director and Cast Commentary, Witness to Exorcism Commentary, The Devil You Know: The Making of The Last Exorcism, Real Stories of Exorcism, Actors' Audition Footage, 2009 Cannes Teaser Trailer, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Daniel Stamm
Cast: Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, Louis Herthum
Length: 87 minutes
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