One of the more skilled proponents of the faux documentary style of filmmaking, German writer-director Daniel Stamm toiled largely in the horror genre, where he applied the verite approach to a pair o...
The Last Exorcism Part II begins by questioning the nature of identity and how it relates to our past. Are we defined by the events that have scarred us? How much power do we have in changing our natures and, in turn, our fate? These are the questions that our incredibly bendy friend Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) is facing after she escapes from the events of the first film.
The Last Exorcism Part II picks up where the first left off, with clips that quickly illustrate the events of The Last Exorcism for those who are just tuning in. That first film was a documentary-style flick about a preacher named (Cotton Marcus) Patrick Fabian who brings along a camera crew to film his last ever exorcism, a ritual that the preacher no longer believes in until he meets Nell, her father Louis (Louis Herthum) and her brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones, once again playing the creepy ginger card). It's not clear whether Nell is exhibiting symptoms of a mental breakdown, perhaps the result of sexual trauma, or if she's actually possessed.
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What was successful about the first, an interesting take on the tired exorcism trope, was that it was really an examination of faith. It wasn't particularly important whether or not Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) was actuallypossessed, just that it caused Cotton to rethink his faith. A similar ambiguity, this time about identity and self-actualization and even sexuality, is played with in the sequel until about two-thirds of the way through, when screenwriters Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly throw any sort of mystery out the window and turn it into some freaky fake voodoo will-to-power nonsense.
After a brief stint at a New Orleans institution, where a nurse secretly snipped a chunk of Nell's hair for her gris-gris bag, Nell is hustled off to a halfway house for girls even though her grasp on reality is still a bit shaky. This house looks more like a really nice old house turned into a dorm, and the supposedly streetwise young girls are just PG-13 racy. With help from the guy who runs the halfway house — is he a therapist? A social worker? — Nell decides she's more than her past, more than a damaged girl who is controlled by the small-minded fears instilled in her by her father. She stops wearing her cross and starts hanging out with the other girls in the house; she even gets a job as a housekeeper at a hotel and begins an awkward romance. The demon inside her — call it Abalam or PTSD or a psychosexual freakout — begins to play tricks on her again. Is she crazy? Is there a cult after her? Is Abalam on the loose? What is the devil inside her? Although it lingers a little too long on the build-up, this is the most enjoyable part of the movie. Bell is interesting to watch, beyond her ability to contort her body, and it's sweet to see Nell bloom. She's equally talented at portraying someone who's losing her grip.
Chazelle and Gass-Donnelly, who also directed, try a mishmash of answers that take us through a meeting with the aforementioned nurse, Cecile (Tarra Riggs), and other followers of what Cecile calls "The Right Hand Path." What happens is a sort of grab bag of religious and occult symbols, from voodoo veves and other magical symbols that are painted on walls (and catch fire!) to mysterious talk of some sort of end-of-days stuff. They even name-check Baron Samedi. That's cool and all, but it doesn't make a lot of sense in context except as a parallel to the Christian rituals in the first film. It looks like the screenwriters did some research, but the bulk of it seems to have come from movies like The Believers and the New Age section of their local bookstore, and it only serves to exoticize these belief systems. That's a nitpicky detail compared to the bigger issue, which is that the audience is bludgeoned with daft answers to Nell's problem. They do raise some interesting questions about identity, destiny and perhaps religion itself that are impossible to discuss without giving away the ending. Still, it's unwieldy at best.
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One small bone we're thrown is that Gass-Donnelly doesn't use the same shaky-cam technique that Daniel Stamm favored in the first film. Although it worked to the movie's favor, it can be rough for those prone to motion sickness. It should also be noted that Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly weren't involved in the first movie; screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland didn't return for sequel duty. It will be interesting to see who turns up for the third Last Exorcism. The third? Sure, it hasn't been announced yet, but it would take an act of God (or perhaps Abalam) to put an end to this story.
[Photo Credit: CBS Films]
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.
One of the more skilled proponents of the faux documentary style of filmmaking, German writer-director Daniel Stamm toiled largely in the horror genre, where he applied the verite approach to a pair of chilling independent films, "A Necessary Death" (2008) and "The Last Exorcism" (2010). The latter followed a preacher whose faith has been shaken as he attempts to debunk a case of demonic possession, only to discover that the horrifying phenomenon was actually true. "Exorcism" was a sizable hit during its American release, which elevated Stamm to desired status in Hollywood. His ability to raise hackles made him a director to watch on the high stakes horror scene.
Born in Hamburg, Germany on April 20, 1976, Daniel Stamm spent his formative years there immersed in a variety of cultural pursuits, including host of a radio show and editor of a magazine for young readers. After studying drama, he toured with a theater group before shifting his attention once again, this time to peace work in Belfast, Ireland. After a two-year stint, he returned to Germany to study screenwriting at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg. Stamm launched his directorial career soon after with features for German television and "Loverman's Verse" (1999), a documentary about cult rocker Nick Cave.
Stamm moved to Los Angeles to further his film studies at the American Film Institute, where his thesis project was nominated for one of the institute's awards. After graduating, Stamm and some fellow students wanted to begin work on a feature project, and after borrowing DV equipment and used recording material, he shot his debut feature, "A Necessary Death" (2008) over the course of a three-year period. Shot as a faux documentary, the dark-themed feature followed a trio of jaded film students who place a want ad seeking a suicidal person that would grant them permission to capture his or her final days on digital video. A terminally ill man answers their request, but his path to death challenges their conception of art and acceptable behavior. "Death" was a major hit on the festival circuit, and claimed the Audience Award at the 2008 AFI Fest.
When writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland found themselves unable to direct their script "The Last Exorcism" after being hired to helm "The Virginity Hit" (2010), Strike Entertainment and producer Eli Roth - who had championed the project after reading the script - set out to find a director comfortable with the documentary format. A friend gave a copy of "Death" to the production team, which resulted in Stamm landing the job two days later. He immersed himself in the subject of exorcism before launching the production, which put his actors through their paces. A fan of controversial director Lars von Trier, Stamm refused to provide his cast with trailers and required them to endure multiple takes of each scene, many of which were physically and emotionally harrowing, in order to strike the correct tone of desperation and mental anguish. The film was a surprise hit at the box office, and netted Stamm an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. He was soon attached to projects by M. Night Shyamalan, as well as an English-language remake of the grisly French horror film, "Martyrs" (2005).
Center For Advanced Film Studies, American Film Institute