Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2010

Does camcorder footage come with a built-in orchestral score?

Artificial elements disrupt the supposed 'realism' of faux-doc 'The Last Exorcism'

The Last Exorcism
Lionsgate
Director: Daniel Stamm
Screenplay: Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Louis Herthum, Iris Bahr, Caleb Landry Jones and Tony Bentley
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 27 minutes
(out of four)

As the first-person documentary style of filmmaking has become a recurring trend, I've often found myself complaining about it. Not necessarily the technique itself, with which I have no problem, but with the arbitrary or even pointless way it gets used. I made this complaint when reviewing the popular Spanish horror flick [REC] last year, and its 2010 sequel had the same problem.

This is not to say that the style hasn't had its high points - 1999's ahead-of-its-time The Blair Witch Project and Matt Reeves' Cloverfield come to mind. But it seems too many people have latched on to the technique without knowing what to do with it, or what its purpose is.

Here we have another example, The Last Exorcism, which at least has some motivation and purpose behind its stylistic choice, and yet still manages to screw it up. The idea is that we're seeing an attempted documentary about a famed evangelical preacher named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who once specialized in performing exorcisms, and now wants to expose the entire idea of exorcism as an outright hoax.

A camera crew follows Mr. Marcus around, splicing in footage of his Sunday sermons, as he explains his con artistry in detail. The key to exposing the fraud is to take one last "possession" case, capture it all on camera and prove to the world that his exploits were really just an elaborate magic trick all along.

The film's early events proceed in pure documentary style - deliberately presented in unpolished form that suggest this all may be "found" footage - and yet the filmmakers abandon that stylistic integrity halfway through. When things finally start to hit the fan, suddenly everything is accompanied by ominous music - the kind of run-of-the-mill music that would normally accompany your typical suspense/horror movie. Yet in The Last Exorcism, it's a complete anachronism - an element so out of place it completely undermines the supposed realism that director Daniel Stamm had so patiently established.

Why the sudden artificial element, injected into an environment in which it has no place? I don't know, and I'll never understand it as an artistic choice. To venture a guess, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the result of studio meddling or test-screening - maybe the scenes in question didn't play "scary" enough, so a score was added to artificially increase the tension for those who need such an external suggestion. (Or maybe the scenes really weren't effective without the music - to which I respond, they aren't effective with the music, either.)

But like I said, that's just a guess. Whatever the case, it's an unfortunate disruption for what should have been the film's most chaotic and unrefined scenes - in other words, the scenes that could have benefitted most from the absence of any filmmaking element as polished and deliberate as a musical score.

What are we to think, then, of the entire faux-doc technique the movie employs? If it's nothing more than an arbitrary device, and the film can immediately revert into your standard horror flick whenever it wants, what's the point in the first place? If you're going to go in a particular artistic direction, at least have the courage to stick with it.

The Last Exorcism isn't a badly made film. In fact, it's one of the better entries into the exorcism subgenre, in part because of its narrative device. Fabian makes for a reasonably convincing preacher/charlatan, and the revelations of the film's third act present some surprising and troubling ideas. But it also suffers from an uneven tone and fails to create the type of unsettling atmosphere it's aiming for - two issues that only become more problematic once the score starts to inexplicably inject itself into the action.

If the filmmakers had had the conviction to follow through on their own premise, rather than resorting to measures that inform and force our emotional reactions, they may have had something worthwhile. Instead, they've succeeded only in exposing the hang-ups of this brand of filmmaking.

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