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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Frights, Faith, and Fundamentalism

The Last Exorcism
Dir. Daniel Stamm
* * * 1/2

The Last Exorcism interested me for only one reason, initially. Not that it looked any good; it seemed like a quickly pieced together Paranormal Activity clone. I consider myself an expert on horror films, and while I've seen lots of films that consider Catholic's dealing with the demonic, as well that feature scenes of New Age, Hindu, Islamic, and a variety of African folk religions involved in exorcisms, I have not seen a film in which a non-Catholic Christian has been involved in one (this is a point the film addresses itself). For a genre fanatic like me this is something that excited me. I didn't expect the film to be any good.

But the film is really really good. I always get a special pleasure seeing a film that is miles better than it has any right to be and this is such a film. As I sat down in the theatre it was suddenly filled with 12 year old's, what seemed to be an entire junior high's worth. I was really wishing they'd made the film R-rated so I wouldn't have to be an old man and yell at the kids to shut up. They were probably expecting a fun-house horror film, something like Paranormal Activity with various bumps and jump scenes. And they reacted as such during the previews, but as the film went on they were surprisingly quiet.

I think this is for two reasons, and they're both the strong points of the film. First, the characters are excellent. Cotton Marucs (excellently portrayed by veteran TV actor Patrick Fabian) is a compelling character who'd be compelling in any type of film. And while the rest of the cast doesn't get to really time to develop, the characters are smart, and don't do stupid things. Second, this is a very old-school horror film. It takes it's time to set things up, it doesn't show much, and it's scares aren't so much from jumps or that annoying smash edit sound thing, but rather a sickening feeling in your gut that comes from a realization.

The use of a documentary style works not just as a gimmick here, or because it worked in Blair Witch or Paranormal. It works here because the film, made by a guy who started out in docs and the film has some really funny jokes that only people who've made documentaries would fully appreciate, deals with what is real and what is not. Cotton is a Reverend, because he's good at it. His father was one, and since he was 10 Cotton's been pounding the pulpit and performing exorcisms. But when Cotton's son is born with health problems he realizes that he may have never believed in anything he's done and after becoming worried that exorcisms are ultimately harmful and at times deadly, he decides to perform one last exorcism and expose the tricks to his trade. This is a fascinating documentary, but since this is a horror film, he comes across complications. The thing is we're never sure what exactly those complications are. Is this a real possession? A case of repression against a fundamentalist upbringing? A psychological reaction to shame? A family with dark secrets?

The sixth chapter of Ephesians is read several times throughout this film. In that chapter Paul tells the Church at Ephesus to put on the whole armor of God. Why?

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12, KJV)."

Even the twist ending which I think everyone agrees was a mistake, points the central concern of this film to this verse, and to a question about it: what happens when we are called to wrestle flesh and blood? What then is a person to do to spiritually survive?

The conflict of the film is not so much Cotton against a possible demon, but rather Cotton's approach to the situation versus Louis, the father of the supposedly possessed girl, about what course of action to take.

And that is where's this tale of evangelical exorcism differs from most others. The traditional exorcism film is confined to a tight location, but in this film evil isn't confined to a location, it moves around and shows up wherever and whenever it wants. And the characters seem to undertake more action in relation to the situation than in most other exorcism films.

However, the film is bookended by examples of the institutions Paul mentions in that verse. At the start of the film Cotton explains how poverty, isolation, and hopelessness make an area (in this case Louisiana, not a random choice for a setting in the least) prime for exorcisms, and the film leaves us with an evil institution; perhaps that's the film's most Protestant element, that the underlying struggle is the individual versus the institution be it a church or a father figure.

The film is ambiguous and troubling enough to be thought provoking. This should be a disposable little summer scare film but I can't stop thinking about it. That's not just a sign of a good horror movie, that's a sign of a good movie period.

In the 1960's and 70's the demonic films all dealt with innocent children being corrupted by an evil force that caused anxiety in the adults. This mirrored the contemporary youth movements and counter-cultures of the time. And the fact that the films dealt mostly with young women definitely reflected the feminist and sexual revolutions. But these films also served a very different purpose. Films like The Exorcist brought faith back into cinema at a time when, in America, religion was being fundamentally, and often successfully, challenged for the first time on a broad front.

But what about the recent crop of possession films? The demon film was mostly absent from mainstream horror for nearly two decades. However, in the past year alone there have been three: Paranormal Activity, Rec 2, and The Last Exorcism, and technically you can probably count Drag me to Hell also, since it does have a possession scene in it. Why have these films popped up now and what are they telling us about ourselves?

I should note that there was another recent trio of films that came out about 5 years ago: Requiem, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Exorcist: The Beginning. These films dealt with misreading evil, seeing evil when there's only human pain and suffering, and instances where religious intervention lead to more suffering and death than there would be had it not acted (this theme is very present in Schrader's version of The Exorcist prequel). However, none of these films really made a major splash in terms of box office or the zeitgeist. It should be noted that Scott Derickson (Rose) and Paul Schrader both have made careers of exploring faith on screen, and perhaps this was a matter of timing.

Like the films from the 60's and 70's, the victims in Paranormal Activity and TLE are young women. However, unlike the films from the classical era of possession films, the concern of these films is not so much on the safety or purity of the women. Rather on the perils of the men who are trying to help or understand them. The audience isn't aligned with a mother figure or a troubled priest but with the camera itself and their own well being and survival: all of these films use a documentary style. This style suggests or at times implicates the spectator in wanting to see a manifestation of evil, yet as an audience we are instead taken to dangerous places and not shown anything definitive, nor do we ever see the evil itself. In Paranormal Activity the presence of a camera actually provokes the demons, and the ending of the film has the demon recognizing the viewer. I won't give away TLE but there is a very striking scene that involves the camera itself.

Rec 2 seems to be the odd film out here; it's Spanish, was made by a director who has dealt with spiritual themes before, and while it is stylistically a doc-horror film it's as much an action film as it is anything else. But Rec 2 gives us a more visible view of one of the themes in these recent films. The Rec films deal not so much with evil, but rather with the lengths we will go, and in particular institutions: the church, and the government will go to contain it. The question of at what point does physical harm or collateral damage outweigh the containment or negation of evil is an element of both Rec 2 and TLE. Are these films responses to fundamentalism and the terrorism it breeds? Or are they reactions to our nations' attempts to try and control things like "Axises of Evil?" The Rec films basically concern how the Catholic Church's attempt at pre- emptively stopping evil backfires and is subsequently made even worse by military overkill in an attempt at keeping normalcy. In Paranormal Activity the boyfriend's desire to both understand and drive the demon that has invaded his home out of hiding makes matters far worse.

TLE differs most here, in that it could be read as a defense of fundamentalism and aggressive action against threatening forces. It could be read as positing that since there exists active institutions of evil there must be active institutions of good (or anti-evil, is perhaps a better explanation of the thought since it's not so much doing good but rather preventing evil), and any sort of middle ground in between, any liberal view of either, leads to disaster. The twist ending is perhaps the most troubling element of the film that seems to suggest this reading of the film.

The formal mode of these films ultimately leaves the burden on the viewer. These films are questions not reinforcements. All three films end with the same shot, that is both a shot and a plot element. The film and the form have collided at the point of most immediate contact with the viewer. We are left with a shot from an unmanned camera. Who is supposedly watching? Nearly all of these documentary horror films are presented as or implied to be "found-footage" that is they were shot and left behind from a doomed incident. What this suggests is that this footage alone is incomplete and must be made into something by the person who found them, in this case the viewer. The author is, in most cases, doubly dead; physically and interpretively. In this case Blair Witch is the first of the truly found-footage films, in that it has no textually recognized filter that it passes through. While Cannibal Holocaust is probably the first of these films to have found-footage it is framed by the story of a news editor who is trying to decide if he should air the footage or not. And another film, The Last Broadcast, that predates Blair Witch, highlights the director's manipulation of the footage. These recent films do not; they present themselves more directly to the viewer. This final shot, of the unmanned camera, plays upon the idea that the viewer can scare themselves far worse than anyone else. And the realization that they made the film, more or less, or even by extension the events of the film by watching the footage, works to effectively make the viewer frighten and disturb themselves. Further, since the camera is not being operated, it's operator usually dead, and since we helped create the film through our viewing of it, we are now the only person left who participated in the events in the film, since the making of the film and its events are tied together, alive. The question of what happens to us, and what do we do with the camera now that it's ours doesn't so much serve as a Brechtian call to action, but rather presents us with a decision to make on some level, one that is quite similar to that of faith: do we accept responsibility for what has just occurred (the film) or do we write off the event as artificial and justify away our place in it? It's a decision these films try to put weight behind, because, whether we pick the camera up and keep shooting or leave it on the ground we do so at our own peril.

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