The faux-documentary “cinema verite” camera style is increasingly prevalent in horror flicks these days and not just because the technique enables budget-conscious genre filmmakers to expend fewer resources on things like locations lighting and visual effects. When done convincingly as in the surprise blockbuster Paranormal Activity it adds an element of chilling authenticity that can dramatically enhance otherwise weak or derivative material. When done poorly as in the hokey alien-abduction thriller The Fourth Kind it comes off as little more than a cheap cinematic trick.
The faux-doc approach is for the most part put to effective use in Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism an unpretentious indie thriller that aims to blend the ethereal terror of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist with the this-is-really-happening novelty of The Blair Witch Project. Its cast made up primarily of modestly talented vaguely recognizable TV actors is led by Patrick Fabian as the Reverend Cotton Marcus a handsome charismatic preacher bred from the cradle to spread the Word. But beneath his true believer facade lies a profound disillusionment with his faith the roots of which he frankly confesses to the documentary crew he’s assembled to chronicle his last cynical days in the pulpit. When he receives a letter from a distressed father pleading for him to perform an exorcism on his seemingly schizophrenic child Cotton embraces the opportunity to record the most bogus of religious rituals for posterity. (Cinephiles will note the story’s strong resemblance to that of Marjoe the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary about a traveling evangelist.)
To the creepy backwoods of rural Louisiana Cotton and his documentarians go encountering a handful of colorful yokels before arriving at the ramshackle house belonging to Louis Sweetzer a stone-faced alcoholic whose faith adheres to the more superstitious fire-and-brimstone variety of Christianity. Louis’ delightful brood includes Caleb (Caleb “Clammyface” Jones) a prickly unstable skeptic and Nell (Ashley Bell) a friendly gracious 16-year-old. All kids are little demonic at that age but bright-eyed Nell’s malevolent fits go beyond the typical hormone-fueled teen tantrums: Among her unusual hobbies are contorting her body into inhuman poses drawing ominous pictures of grisly murders and mutilating housepets and farm animals. Surely Satan and his minions must be involved.
It’s a clever ploy by the filmmakers to set The Last Exorcism in the deep south a place that needs no supernatural help to scare the bejesus out of people. Each of the three members Sweetzer family are creepily off-center as if their drinking water is spiked with equal amounts of Ambien and Dexedrine. Even the sweetly innocent face of the unpossessed Nell has an unsettling quality to it (it's oddly reminiscent of Vampire Weekend's controversial Contra album cover). All of which suggests that Cotton and his documentary crew are about to be taught a painful lesson in redneck theology.
Director Stamm’s principal aim is to unnerve rather than shock and while The Last Exorcism features its fair share of scares its tone is geared more toward keeping you on the edge of your seat than making you jump out of it. Disturbing details about the Sweetzer family are gradually revealed giving rise to insinuations of incest and other acts far more sordid than mere demonic possession the likelihood of which appears ever more possible as Cotton’s hocus-pocus treatments for Nell serve only to exacerbate her violent episodes. The film is betrayed at times by inaccuracies (Cotton employs a crucifix as one of his props apparently unaware that they’re the sole domain of Roman Catholic clergy) and its chaotic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it climax which pack about a half-dozen twists into a 90-second flurry of darting camerawork and what appears to be community-theater reworking of Rosemary’s Baby resolves matters in a devilishly disappointing fashion.
While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.