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Agnostic preachers fight the devil

The Last Exorcism (MA). Director: Daniel Stamm. Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Adam Grimes. 87 minutes

Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, The Last ExorcismIn a 1999 interview with online horror magazine Dark Planet, American author William Peter Blatty described his 1971 demonic possession novel The Exorcist as being 'about the eternal questions ... why are we here? what are we supposed to be doing? why do we die? is there a God?' The Exorcist 'approached this last question, which is at the heart of all the others, by seeking to confirm the existence of 'demons' and the power of religious faith to deal with them'.

It's true that although this horror novel's account of the demonic possession of a young girl is disturbing, The Exorcist upholds an essentially fundamentalist, even romantic vision of religious (particularly Catholic) experience. Its central character, Fr Damien Karas, is a wearily compassionate, agnostic Jesuit. His encounters with demonic forces during the events portrayed in the novel restore his belief in the metaphysical dimension of his faith. This ultimately reconnects him to the knowledge that selflessness is the cornerstone of grace.

The Last Exorcism is a pseudo-documentary that puts Blatty's thesis to work in a much greyer context. This a cautionary tale that decries fanaticism and blind cynicism equally.

The filmmakers substitute for the jaded Jesuit a troubled Middle American preacher, Cotton Marcus (Fabian), who is being followed by a two-person film crew including director Iris (Bahr) and cameraman Daniel (Grimes).

This former child preacher is a born showman, skilled at playing the room in order to stoke religious fervour. His sermons are peppered with sleight-of-hand tricks that elicit oohs and ahs among the halleluiahs. To demonstrate the power of hype over substance, he bets Iris that he can babble his mother's banana bread recipe amid his frenzied preaching, without anyone noticing. When he does so, it is with a discreet grin at the camera.

In truth, Cotton has lost his faith, although he's been reluctant to let go of the role he was born and raised to do. Not just sermons, either: this affable shyster has also been performing sham exorcisms. He describes this as a 'service' similar to what Karas in The Exorcist might call an 'autosuggestive shock cure'. He claims he is meeting a psychological, not a spiritual, need.

But he's ready to drop the act, and has invited Iris to document what will be his final exorcism. Like a magician exposing trade secrets, he'll reveal the tricks and gimmicks that characterise his exorcisms.

The bulk of the film deals with Cotton, Iris and Daniel (present only as a voice behind the camera) and their experiences on the Sweetzer farm in rural Florida. Shy and skittish adolescent girl Nell Sweetzer (Bell) is experiencing what her devout father Louis believes to be textbook symptoms of demonic possession. They have called Cotton in as a last resort after mainsteam medical treatments failed.

This is a similar set-up to the The Exorcist. But The Last Exorcism maintains a greater level of ambiguity than its predecessor. Nell is clearly disturbed, but is the disturbance psychological, or spiritual? Likewise, it becomes apparent that she has indeed been 'defiled', but is the defiler human or demonic?

Certainly there is more going on here than the unsuspecting Cotton could ever have imagined. The film eventually offers a disturbing resolution to these questions, but not before offering plenty of effective horror thrills: creepy atmosphere and visuals, and the occasional shock of gore.

But the real treat is watching Cotton at work. Fabian's portrayal strikes a fine balance between supercilious and affable. Cotton sells himself to Louis like a used car salesman, demonstrating for Iris and Daniel how the powers of charm and persuasion can be used to manipulate the blindly faithful. The initial exorcism is itself a farce employing cheap special effects which Cotton demonstrates privately for the camera before using to dupe the gormless Louis and Nell.

As events become more serious, the parallels between Cotton's and Karas' journeys become more pronounced. Although Cotton's glib cynicism contrasts with Karas' weary agnosticism, like Karas his encounters with the (possibly) supernatural are enough to force him to question his 'unfaith'. This puts him on a similar journey to realising greater truths about his God and himself. For Cotton though, the more shocking discoveries pertain to the evil of which ordinary humans are capable.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail

Topic tags: The Last Exorcism, Daniel Stamm, Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones



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