Sometimes nothing is more than something. That truth is writ large this summer on the walls at the cineplex. So, Bryce searches the skies for UFOs, Sherry waits for something romantic, and I have time on my hands heading into the holiday weekend. Yikes. The Last Exorcism (I only wish) promises a scary ride about demonic possession and failed faith. It comes freighted with anticipation from producer Eli Roth (Hostel I & II) but this train comes in light, especially for audiences expecting to have their pants scared off. Or a less obvious touch. Nobody said this would be simple, or pretty. That’s why this Smack smells like a mismatch: Does The Last Exorcism stand a puncher’s chance against a double Oscar winning flick that really delivers the goods, The Exorcist? Swing away.
The Last Exorcism looks and feels like an inspired student film: Reverend Marcus Cotton (Patrick Fabian) stopped being a man of God sometime back. To this apostate the faithful are a never-ending stream of suggestible fools he can finesse out of their money through manipulation and stage props. Cotton even assembled a video crew and promised to “…expose exorcism for the scam it really is. That’s God’s work.” Before long Cotton takes the video crew to rural Louisiana, because Louis Sweetzer somehow thinks this cash-n-carry cleric can draw out a demon possessing his daughter, Nell. Sweetzer and family inhabit a space between extreme religious fundamentalism and psychosis. The exorcism doesn’t work out so well. In short order, this flick stops imitating Frontline and becomes more Tate-LaBianca and Rosemary’s Baby. Daniel Stamm directed his grainy, no-tripod film from a script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland.
The Defending Champion
Visiting actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) finds something that wasn’t in her movie script. Something’s not right, either in her Georgetown townhouse or Chris’ daughter, Regan (Linda Blair}. A demon moved in, transforming the girl into a snarling, cursing, levitating monster willing to spew and spew at will. A troubled Jesuit, Damian Karras (Jason Miller) makes no headway with psychiatric counseling. So an exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is summoned for an Ultimate Smackdown. It’s very messy, nightmarish for anyone believing in an existence beyond our immediate senses. And for those who do not believe. William Friedkin directed this achievement of a lifetime from a script William Peter Blatty adapted from his novel.
The differences are clear with The Exorcist: a superior cast (von Sydow, Miller, Burstyn, Lee.J.Cobb), effective music and sound in service to a story that remains disturbing 37 years after its release.
The producers of The Last Exorcism might have created a more effective huckster by borrowing from a better film, like A Face in the Crowd. They saved a ton in production costs in hiring Ashley Bell to play Nell Sweetzer. She’s fully double jointed and performed her contortions without special effects. With their savings the crew could have picked up a tripod and lights. This hand-held mockumentary approach is just played out. The acting is uniformly good.
A word here about the folks in the seats: As a lifelong Catholic and work in progress, I try to respect the the faith traditions of others. Belief gives the faithful direction and hope against the uncertainty and cruelties of life. Those people will not enjoy being portrayed as rural simpletons, easily gulled. The truth is more complicated and harder to portray fairly. The Last Exorcism is allergic to nuance and paints its portraits in the broadest stokes. That is a toxic failure in credibility.
So, who’s the winner?
It’s not The Last Exorcism. It stepped into the Smack against a bona fide opponent that offers strong writing, great production values and direction. You gain a palpable sense of the dilemma facing people whose beliefs extend to realities unseen but deeply felt.
Lights out for The Last Exorcism. It should have squared off with a puppet show. Want a really satisfying moment? Try those sweet contours on the shining face of a new friend. Or a screen experience all dusted off and sturdy as ever. Like our truly scary winner, The Exorcist. It’s available in different commemorative editions, all excellent.