Blu-ray Review: “The Last Exorcism”

Cinéma vérité has become part of the dime-a-dozen variety in the genre these past few years, giving way to many triumphs and failures. For every Cloverfield and REC, there’s a Diary of the Dead and Open Water not too far behind it. Coupled with the fact that we haven’t had a good, straight-up religious horror flick in years, The Last Exorcism has the odds stacked against its favor. But it overcomes them surprisingly well, creating a chilling atmosphere with likable characters, something of a rarity in the hand held camera sub-genre.
For those who are tired of religious horror films being heavy-handed, fear not. Reverend Marcus Cotton (Patrick Fabian), our protagonist, is a Christian leader who views religion as a form of entertainment and exorcisms as providing mental restitution for those who need it. Noticing a trend in violent outcomes during church-sanctioned purifications, Cotton throws together a documentary crew to eyewitness one of his in order to show the world that the practice of exorcising demons is, in fact, a hoax perpetrated by the church to take money from mentally disturbed people. Randomly selecting a letter out of a pile of requests, he comes across Louis Sweetzer’s (Louis Herthum) plea to “heal” his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell). And, simply put, if Cotton hadn’t stepped in shit the second he decided to visit their farm, we wouldn’t have a movie.

With mock docs, the element that really makes or breaks them is whether or not the universe is one that can suck its audience in. Writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland struck a really good balance between the horrific, comedic, and dramatic elements that make up their gothic yarn. Cotton is a smarmy, though endearing, swindler, dishing out puns and dry humor left and right, giving the thirty minute setup the charm it needs not to bore. And in Louis and Nell (and even her brother, Caleb, to some extent), they’ve created a sympathetic family who, for reasons I’ll leave unexplained, lead very tortured lives. And even though the story flip-flops through many different developments and theories, causing character arcs to drastically shift, you have that initial investment through the setup that makes you cling to these characters through their trials and tribulations. Some of the performances are awkward, though for once it adds to the charm of the film, since most of the characters on-screen are from a backwater town and have never been on camera before.

The atmosphere created by director Daniel Stamm and cinematographer Zoltan Honti is a breath of fresh air, creating tension and several chilling scenes by just walking through a dark room. With a minimal amount of jump scares, and virtually no blood and special effects in the entire film, The Last Exorcism manages to make you uncomfortable for most of its running time ala the horror classics of yesteryear. The ending, which is sure to divide many people, is actually really fitting in the context of the film. In an attempt to remain as spoiler free as possible, all I’ll say is that while it does appear to come out of left field, it really doesn’t in hindsight and if it had ended the way most people are expecting it to, everyone would have complained its final moments were too similar to another recent horror hit.

The presentation also has its drawbacks, leaving the film with two minor problems. While the score by Nathan Barr (True Blood) is well written and full of ambiance, I can’t help but think it really doesn’t belong in the film, especially since this is supposed to be a real-time deal like REC, where the camera is rolling almost every second except for when the characters are sleeping. Speaking of the camera, the film’s other issue is that the camera achieves these shots that seems really odd considering the situation at hand in the flick. If your subject is speaking to a possessed girl, why would you take the camera off of the girl and look around the room? And why would you randomly go outside in the middle of the night and get establishing shots of the house? It comes across as a little too slick at times, which takes you out of the film and directly works against the angle Stamm and Co. are going for.

Lionsgate’s AVC MPEG-4 1080p encode is, aside from some minor banding issues, a great representation of its source transfer. However, that is both a blessing and a curse. The film looks great during daytime shots, and provides a lot of crisp, clear details, which are especially noticeable during the more voyeuristic scenes. Colors and textures also pop, but once the action moves into nighttime, the film’s visuals become somewhat drowned out and blurry looking. Still, it’s intentional and was present during the film’s theatrical presentation. The DTS-HD 7.1 track is a little too good, considering that The Last Exorcism is supposed to be a documentary, but like its video presentation, it’s a proper representation of the theatrical experience. Bass is deep, the requisite hisses and pops are present to make it seem more legit, and it general produces great room ambiance on all fronts. My biggest problem with the sound has nothing to do with the audio, but rather that it has a score. The Blu-Ray carries a few extra supplemental materials than its DVD counterpart, including the Cannes teaser trailer, a commentary track featuring people involved with a “real” exorcism, and audition footage with all the principal actors. The balance of supplements is note-worthy, as it is almost a 50/50 split between material on the film and material about the subject matter of the film, something I wish most releases would have. Also included is a DVD and digital copy.

The Last Exorcism is one of the more enjoyable theatrical experiences I’ve had this year, making me laugh and sweat simultaneously. Along with Martyrs, it’s easily the most satisfying religious horror film of the past fifteen years, giving us a few well-constructed characters and an interesting premise that keeps its grip on you until the very last frame.

Special Features

Commentaries – Like most releases Eli Roth has anything to do with, The Last Exorcism is packed with commentaries. The first track features Roth, along with fellow producers Eric Newman and Tom Bliss, discussing distribution, working in the low-budget realm of film making, and other general functions of producing. It’s informative, but only interesting in small spurts until they start talking about the genre and religion halfway through the track. If you’re looking for something that’s more focused on the film itself, rather than the mechanics of setting it up, then the track with director Daniel Stamm, and actors Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, and Louis Herthum is more your speed. Stamm and Fabian are the key players here, fielding a lot of questions to each other, sharing a lot of on-set stories, and leading all the discussions in general. Bell is sadly very shy on the track, and doesn’t add much, while Herthum chimes in with random quips and stories on occasion. Still, it’s obvious that the group here is very tight nit, and their love for the film and their parts is very apparent. The third track, a wild card if there ever was one and a Blu-Ray exclusive, features Dr. Selena Matthews (a psychologist), Katie (a deliverance minister and counselor), and Stephanie (a “victim”), three people who have been involved with an actual exorcism; whether one believe that or not is an entirely different story. For my money, this was one of the most engrossing commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, and definitely the one I’d recommend most on this release. In addition to giving their own stories, the three women also talk about the film and how their personal experiences line up with the scenarios that play out on screen.

Protection Prayer – A text screen with a protection prayer in English and Italian, which, according to Roth, was included “at the recommendation of the exorcist on our commentary.”

Real Stories Of Exorcism (14:38) – A closer examination of the exorcism experience between Stephanie and Katie McDonald from the commentary track. The two go through their story, almost step-by-step, complete with voice recordings and theology discussions with Mutombo Nkulu-Nsengha (former Jesuit) and Arlene Sanchez-Walsh (professor of Theology). There’s also a disclaimer at the beginning, claiming that you should read the Protection Prayer on the disc before watching the feature, since the demonic voices heard therein are real. Like the commentary track, it isn’t necessary to believe in what’s going on to find the psychological implications of these situations interesting.

The Devil You Know: The Making Of The Last Exorcism (20:24) – A fairly standard behind the scenes featurette, with floating head interviews with all the main talent involved in the film. It’s strictly film related though, so don’t expect any religious discussions.

Audition Footage (14:40) – A collection of cast auditions which is sadly lacking a “play all” function. Ashley Bell performs her exorcism scene, proving how she got the role almost instantly; Patrick Fabian gives a sermon on money, giving a much more subdued performance than he does in the film; Caleb Landry Jones does his introduction scene bit more aggressively; and Louis Herthum delivers explanation of Nell in a less concerned manner.

2009 Cannes Film Festival Teaser Trailer (2:27) – A short promo reel for Cannes, featuring Nell’s bedroom exorcism scene. From what I can tell, Ashley Bell is the only principal actor from the film actually included in this; the two men – who remain faceless – sound like different actors. It’s short, features Bell and has an unexpected ending, making it a great promo reel for investors.

Film: 4/5

Blu-Ray: 4/5