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.
With its twisty-turning plot and military setting Basic could be the love child of an illicit affair between The Usual Suspects and The General's Daughter; it even borrows the star of the latter. In Basic John Travolta plays Tom Hardy a former Army Ranger and interrogator extraordinaire who's now a DEA agent in Panama suspended from duty on suspicion of bribery. He's hitting the rebellious law enforcement officer's requisite bottle of Jack Daniels heavily--until an old friend on the local army base Col. Bill Styles (Tim Daly) calls him in to investigate the disappearances and probable deaths of an elite group of trainees and their commander Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L Jackson) during a training session in the Panamanian jungle. Staff investigator Lt. Julia Osbourne (Connie Nielsen) a plucky Southern gal who's none too pleased with Hardy's invasion of her turf is assigned to help Hardy question the unit's surviving members Kendall (Giovanni Ribisi) and Dunbar (Brian Van Holt). As their stories unfold over a series of flashbacks the interrogators discover a military underworld of drugs murder and coercion--and the mysterious existence of a rogue Ranger unit called "Section 8." Now for an interrogation of our own. Is the plot convoluted? Sir yes sir! Is it too tricky for its own good? Sir yes sir! Thank you soldier. You may stand down.
The trigger-finger pointing winking cluck-clucking "gotcha" persona Travolta (Swordfish Domestic Disturbance) creates in Hardy is as appropriate to the story as it can possibly be; the way he manipulates his subjects under interrogation is much the same way the story manipulates its audience. He leads them--and the observant Lt. Osbourne--to believe one thing then pulls the rug out from under them to prove the old cliché of military movies: that nothing is as it seems. In Nielsen's (The Hunted One Hour Photo) Osbourne we're given a character who could lead us through the jungle of the plot (she discovers the "facts" at the same time as the audience so her reaction is meant I suppose to be ours) but since Hardy spends much of his time making her look and feel like an idiot she comes off as one and frankly so do we. The talented Jackson (Changing Lanes) mostly does the bellowing drill sergeant bit while Ribisi (Heaven) as the homosexual son of a high-ranking general talks like he has cotton wool in his mouth and moves and twitches like he's mildly brain-impaired. (His character's not supposed to be; he only got shot in the leg.) One bright spot in this movie is the featured role for hunky Van Holt (Windtalkers Black Hawk Down) whose chiseled good looks and heroic demeanor make him a shoo-in should anyone ever make a live-action Johnny Bravo movie.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences some heavy-duty action in Die Hard Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Hunt for Red October but he's also the director who brought us such gems as Rollerball and Last Action Hero so it's not surprising that in Basic we get some action and intrigue paired with the out-there story stylings and narrative confusion of some of his less successful work. Here each flashback brings new information that conflicts with what we've been told before and the story never really resolves those conflicts in any satisfying way. The "big twist" at the end instead of bringing it all together creates gaping holes in the plot or at least creates so much doubt in the story we've just spent an hour and a half watching that it's easy to get fed up with trying to figure it out. Naturally no one likes to be spoon-fed plot resolutions but in order for twists to work they have to give the audience something to focus its doubt on--they can't just call the whole kit and caboodle into question. We have to be able eventually to figure it out. But hey maybe we aren't supposed to work out the details; after all this movie with its catchy one-word title and colorful cast of characters is just begging for a sequel: Basic 2: Explaining the First Movie.