Typically, horror movies don't scare me at all... unless of course, the film I'm watching happens to dabble in possession and exorcism. That's when I get shivers up my spine and have to curl into a ball on the couch, feverishly pulling a blanket up to my chin as if to hide my body from other-worldly attacks. The funny thing is that I can't quite put my finger on why these films give me the creeps. I mean, I'm not religious or anything. I don't believe in God or the Devil, and in my opinion, there's no such thing as ghosts, spirits, or any other form of life after death. If I had to take a guess though, I'd say my irrational fear of such films as The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, comes from their ability to bring me to a setting and cast of characters I can identify with as being real, and then giving that reality a horrific spin. To see people lose control of their bodies to the likes of some supernatural force scares the hell out of me, especially since I don't believe such things to exist. To show me reality and then really make me wonder, "What if?" That's powerful filmmaking right there. So of course, I was pretty excited when I began hearing buzz about The Last Exorcism about a year ago. It was going to attempt to show us an exorcism via 'documented' hand-cam footage, and the previews I had seen were beyond promising. I missed it during its widespread theatrical run however, but now that it's finally available on Blu-ray, I've finally been able to screen it. After all was said and done however, all I could say was, "Ugh, and this film had such potential."
On the surface, Cotton Marcus is a wholesome, down to earth family man. When he's not taking care of his wife and son however, he's busy praising the Lord. A Reverend in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Cotton puts every ounce of energy he has into his performances on stage week after week, hoping to instill values of love, faith, healing, and above all else, giving. In reality, Cotton Marcus is really just a swindler, and the worst kind of swindler at that. His prey are those that are gullible enough to hang on to every word of his sermon as if they were being delivered from God himself. Hell, he once worked a banana bread recipe into a sermon, and the crowd still cheered him on. No matter what this man said, people would drop their money into the collection basket... but Cotton's religious business enterprise didn't end there. No, he even charges a tremendous amount of money in order to perform exorcisms. And the worst part? Much like myself, Cotton doesn't believe in God, the Devil, or heaven and hell. So, of course, the people he would exercise weren't really possessed, but with some hidden speakers and strings rigged to pull things off the wall, the 'afflicted' and their family would be thoroughly convinced otherwise.
Fortunately though, Cotton is having a change of heart. He's tired of taking people for granted, so he's decided to quit using religion as his means for making a living. Instead of just walking away clean though, Cotton decides to do something that could possibly benefit more people than he's ever cheated in his life. Setting out to make a film that documents his final, fake exorcism, Cotton hopes to reveal to the world just how much of a sham the whole exorcism racket really is. Just in the nick of time, a letter comes from Louis Sweetzer, requesting that this ritual be performed on his daughter, Nell. Wasting no time at all, Cotton grabs his film crew and heads to the Sweetzer farm to perform his magic, collect his money, bail, and then make a ton of money by distributing his eye-opening film. Unfortunately for Cotton and his crew however, Nell isn't the typical basket-case that he's used to working with. There seems to be something truly supernatural going on, and after all is said and done, the film that Cotton leaves for the world isn't exactly what he had in mind.
As I said before, films about possession and exorcism can be really effective when they feel authentic, and for my belief system, the premise behind The Last Exorcism fits the bill. Going behind the scenes to watch a Reverend con his way into the wallets of religious followers, taking advantage of those who are mentally unstable enough to believe they're possessed - Serving us with an exorcist that doesn't even believe in the forces that carpet the 'world beyond' is an unexpected twist, and a welcome one at that. I've grown tired of the 'old priest vs. possessed girl' shtick long ago, so to say that I was ready to witness the irony of Cotton Marcus finally coming face to face with pure evil, would be a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately for The Last Exorcism however, realism and character development are discarded to instead favor cheap scares and absurd plot twists.
Despite how important authenticity is supposed to be for a hand-cam horror documentary film, The Last Exorcism is anything but authentic. The beginning of the film does a great job at pulling me in, but as soon as Cotton arrives at the Sweetzer farm, intrigue is immediately replaced with face-palming disbelief as we're left to witness one horror cliché after another. The first character we meet on the farm is Nell's brother, Caleb, an eerie teenage boy that delivers ominous messages to Cotton, warning him that he should go back to wherever it is he came from. Immediately I'm reminded of Malachai from Children of the Corn, and for a film where realism is supposedly the number one selling point, I know that can't bode well for how the rest of the film is going to pan out. Louis Sweetzer is reduced from a loving father figure to a gun-toting maniac, Nell is the stereotype of a sweet and innocent country girl, and Cotton? He's easily the worst offender of the bunch. He may start off as an interesting character early in the film, but he also inevitably succumbs to the clichés of Hollywood, flushing every opportunity he's given to escape down the toilet. For me though, the biggest flaw this film has (besides it's hilariously horrid ending), is that there's not a single person in the cast that isn't coming off as a professional actor, or at the very least, overacting their part. So, needless to say, if you wanted The Last Exorcism to be a successful blend of The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
I know I've come down on this movie pretty hard (and for good reason), but it's not a total wash. The scenes where Nell loses control of herself to the demon Abalam are very well done, and were actually able to scare me more often than not (keep in mind I'm highly susceptible to these kinds of flicks). If all you're looking for is a good scare on occasion, then check this film out. For the rest of you film enthusiasts out there though, you might want to considering watching the original classic that started it all, The Exorcist.
Encoded with AVC at a resolution of 1080p (1.78:1), The Last Exorcism on Blu-ray flawlessly preserves the intended look the director had strived for. This may not be the prettiest looking film on the format, but again, The Last Exorcism was meant to look like an on-the-go documentary. The earlier scenes in the film that take place before we're exposed to Nell's possession are impressive enough - Colors and skin tones are natural, and contrast is good. Since this is a film about possession though, the rest of the film takes on a much darker tone. As a result, colors can look slightly drained, and black levels can look murky. The film can have a natural sharpness to it that never looks overly refined, but as expected for the way this movie was filmed, many shots can also look rather soft. Of course, these 'issues' are a result of the director's artistic choice, so I can't fault the transfer for what I'm seeing at all. As far as I'm concerned, this is a faithful representation of what must have been seen in theaters, and anyone who doesn't go into this film with unrealistic expectations should be very pleased with what's on this disc.
The Last Exorcism sports a surprising 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Considering this is supposed to be a documentary, I was surprised at how much directional audio there was. Although this is really an excellent track for sound placement that's going to effectively scare the crap out of you, I find myself a little confused by the director's artistic choice in this respect. If the intent of this film was to be an authentic experience in documenting an exorcism, then how does a 7.1 mix even exist? It's little details like this that can really take you out of the experience. It may sound like a minor thing that I should overlook, but again, this film needs all the help in the 'realism' department it can get. Enough about that though. Low end frequencies aren't dominant in the film, but when they're used, they really add to the atmosphere of the mix quite well. Dialogue is always crisp and clear unless we're not supposed to hear something, and the few notes of music that drift in every so often chill to the bone. Unless you're as nitpicky as I am about The Last Exorcism having a 7.1 mix, you're going to find this to provide a spooky experience in your home theater. For a horror film that's this low key, this is a track you're probably going to want to pick certain sequences from to showcase how a 7.1 mix can creep around your theater. Despite being nearly reference, I can't help but take a star away from this portion of the disc due to a confusing artistic choice.
Audio Commentary with Producers Eli Roth, Eric Newman, and Tom Bliss / Audio commentary with Director Daniel Stamm and Actors Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, and Louis Fabian / Witness to an Exorcism - Audio Commentary with a Haunting Victim, Deliverance Minister, and Clinical Psychologist - You're not reading that wrong. There are three audio commentaries on this release, and each one covers every base you'd want covered for a film like this. The first commentary track talks mostly about the production of the film. The second offers a bit more insight from the actors, and as a result, information doesn't needlessly lap over from the previous track. The best was most definitely saved for last though. I mean, come on... a commentary with a haunting victim, an exorcist, and a psychologist? For someone who's as much of a disbeliever as I am, I found this to be one of the most interesting commentary tracks I may have ever heard in my life. If you don't have a lot of time on your hands, make sure you listen to the Witness to an Exorcism commentary!
Protection Prayer - Self explanatory, this is a simple text feature on the supplement menu.
Real Stories of Exorcism - This is featurette will educate you on the history of exorcism, and even more disturbing, it goes as far as to provide modern day examples of the practice. Again, despite my disbelief in the subject matter here, this was intriguing to take in. I'd even say it's 'fascinating'. Don't skip this one!
The Devil You Know - The Making of The Last Exorcism - This is pretty standard fare for a behind-the-scenes look at a movie, but this is one of most intriguing I've seen in a while. Of course, since this isn't filmed to be like your typical Hollywood flick, I was intrigued to see just how these 'hand-cam' movies are produced. The interview segments provide a lot of great insight into the process as well. This is another one you shouldn't miss.
Actors' Audition Footage - Also self explanatory, these are the audition clips of Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, Caleb Landry, and Louis Herthum. After watching these, I still can't really understand why they chose some of the people they did. They're just too professional for a film such as this.
Also included is the 2009 Cannes Festival Teaswer Trailer, as well as the Theatrical Trailer.
I don't think it would be unfair to assume that The Last Exorcism was supposed to be a mash-up between The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity. Unlike both of those films however, there was nothing in The Last Exorcism that seemed genuine to me - The actors seemed like they were acting, the characters were written to be one-dimensional clichés, and the ending could go down as one of the worst endings I've ever seen. That being said, this film is good for some legitimate frights, and if that's all you're looking for, then you're in luck. If you were hoping for a 'real' exorcism film however, we're just going to have to wait a bit longer for somebody to do it right. The video quality is as good as the source allows it to be, the 7.1 audio mix (as confusing as such a choice may be for a hand-cam documentary) is pretty amazing, and the extras are pretty nice, too. It's just a shame that the film itself doesn't live up to the quality of the rest of this release. I'd recommend you rent this before jumping head first into a blind buy. I know if I paid full price for this film, I'd be fairly disappointed, especially since I don't believe it warrants any repeat viewings.