The Last Exorcism But First Found Footage

Before Chris Olson and I started on this project, we were just watching horror movies.  I have been fond of found footage style horror movies since The Blair Witch Project.  And in my last post on the exorcism cinema project, I started thinking through why these movies are relying on tactics designed to foster a sense of perceived realism.  Which is all to say that because I like found footage horror movies, I watched The Last Exorcism (2010) for fun before thinking of it as part of a larger research project.

However, in reviewing the movie as part of the project, and then in watching its sequel The Last Exorcism Part II (2013), it was amazing to consider how these movies both aligned with and went against the rest of the films about exorcism.  In this first part, the only one of the two that is truly found footage, the movie aligns with the straight forward narrative of exorcism cinema: a young woman is possessed by a devil and it is up to the intervention of a priest who is questioning his faith to save her.  And yet, even with this commonality, there are distinct differences that creep into this movie and then lead to the wholly unique take that is the sequel.

As a found footage movie, The Last Exorcism does not position itself as being based on or inspired by a real story of exorcism.  Instead, it positions itself through its structure: the conceit of being part of a documentary series about a reverend who wants to show the fictional and dangerous belief in and practice of exorcisms.  As a viewer, we are lead to believe that on this last case, something terrible goes wrong, and all that we know of what happened is through the recordings made for this documentary.  Interestingly enough, the sequel refers back to this framing device while being a more straight forward exorcism narrative.

But neither movie is as straight forward an exorcism film as those in The Exorcist series and other movies we will discuss.  In The Last Exorcism the acts of possession and exorcism are not the big narrative twists and turns intended to generate the chills and suspense of this horror subgenre.  In a way, these narrative plot points are merely to refer to the genre conventions — people know what to expect when you claim to have exorcism — that allow the filmmakers to explore other narrative plot points or horror conventions in order to create new chills and suspense.  The use of found footage, in this movie as well as others in this True Stories series, is yet another structuring device intended to bring something new to the experience of watching a straight forward exorcism narrative.

In an era of desensitization, horror filmmakers are always seeking for the next best way to deliver the same level, or even higher level, of frights to the horror movie fan.  Torture porn movies such as Saw go further and further into grotesque displays of gore as possible, and sometimes more than what can be handled.  Modern True Stories filmmakers resurrected the exorcism subgenre and folded in the horror conventions that arose since The Exorcist series as the way to give the perpetually hungry, never satisfied horror fanbase.

Just as torture porn utilizes realistic depictions of violence to unsettle the audience, these exorcism cinema unsettle us through the eliciting of that question “are demons real?”  The movies would have us believe that they are, just as torture porn would have us fear serial killers and kidnappers and the odd person in the neighborhood.  While we all go into a movie knowing what we see and hear is not real, these movies do their best to have us suspend that disbelief through the reliance on these realism conventions.  We are asked to consider “what if” such possessions did occur — which leads to a rather fascinating ending to The Last Exorcism Part II.       

For now, what follows is our reactions to and reflections on what happens to young Nell, in a story of her loss of control over her own life, and not just because of a demonic possession.

The movie begins with Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), his home life with his wife and son, in Louisiana.  Interestingly, we can see the camera person in mirror, which is our way to recognize that there is a person behind the framing of the images, and thus it allows us to identify not just with the camera as an inanimate object but with the man behind the camera and the plight he will soon encounter.  The focus is on getting to know who Marcus is, how he’s a performer, but he also mentions Devil right away, how Devil is everywhere – also how he doesn’t really seem to totally believe in what he is saying.  So there you go: the man of faith who is questioning his faith about to go on a quest to regain his faith.

Hortus deliciarum: Marcus’ father has this book that describes demons, identifies them, and how to exorcise them.  We are told they have had exorcists in the family for generations and that his father has done 150 exorcisms – is that book really that? (Not if you believe Wikipedia, that is not what that book is).  Marcus performed his first exorcism at age 10.  He continues his educational lesson by saying all religions perform exorcisms, because if they believe in God, then they need to believe in the Devil.

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But, the thing is, Marcus does not actually believe in demons, he just pretends to when doing exorcisms.  He sees himself as doing a service, to help heal people, to get rid of thought that anyone was possessed.  Exposition continues as we learn he had a crisis of faith when his son was born.  He had heard the story of a boy dying during an exorcism, and he decided he wanted to expose exorcisms as scams.

For it being found footage, and given what happens at the end, the movie is rather well edited, having a polished look and feeling like a finished documentary.  This cannot be raw footage that was just found and reconstituted by the police.  This looks and sounds like a completed documentary.

So Marcus wants to take the documentary crew on a case, and they head out.  As they near the farm, they hear stories of a cult in the area, where a leader felt the need to feed human souls to the Devil.  That is definitely going to be important later.

Our introduction to Nell (Ashley Bell) is first through the results of her reportedly killing a bull – so the idea is that she is already possessed when we see her and we do not get to see her before her possession, to learn who she is prior to it – thus again she is not the main character, but the antagonist, with Marcus positioned in the hero’s role. Dreams of Esther of Antioch, has drawings of this Biblical figure of salvation for her people — foreshadowing?

She is introduced as a quiet girl, plain, shy, sweet, low self-esteem, definitely portrayed as innocent, and described as happy and vibrant, who believes what her father tells her about killing the animals.  Nell is only 16.  She lost her mother at 14 when she was just coming into womanhood.  Her father is giving his children a more fundamentalist Christian upbringing by homeschooling Nell and her brother.  Yet his son, Caleb, calls his father a superstitious drunk who is very protective of Nell.

The Father believes the Devil is in Nell.  Nell cannot wear her crucifix from her mother, which Marcus has explanation for as an allergy.  However, to go along with the supposed “charade,” Marcus conducts a “medical examination” that leads to the decision to do an exorcism.

Marcus is the one who calls the demon Abalam (aka Paimon?), the most powerful demon in the book from his father, who preys on and defiles the flesh of the innocent, where the only salvation is death – which is kinda what happens to Nell in the second movie (there she gains her power, her salvation, by dying and choosing Abalam).  Nell is given a pair of red boots from the producer Iris — red, of course, being a rather demonic color.

Everyone gets dressed up so fancy for the exorcism.  In their Sunday best.

The only odd thing Marcus sees during the “medical examination” that leads him to do the exorcism is the boiling water Nell has her feet in – there are no other signs of paranormal activity shown before the exorcism.  Things happen during the exorcisms – demonic growls, bed moving, things falling – but Marcus set that all up, and he shows his tricks to us.  Nell doesn’t know that and is hysterical during the exorcism.  Marcus gives a performance and declares the exorcism a success.  And gets a lot of money – like a con man.

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They go to a motel that night and are awakened by Nell showing up in Marcus’ room, acting odd by acting out a lesbian desire with Iris. And that is when you, and them, start to wonder if the real thing is happening — or, at least, a real mental illness.  They bring Nell to the hospital and her Father arrives.  Marcus wants to run psychiatric tests but the Father won’t allow it; he does not trust doctors due to wife’s death to cancer.

They return to the farm to find that Caleb was slashed across face with knife by Nell. Father and Caleb go to the hospital.  Marcus and Iris rationalize that the Father is abusing Nell – which is a reasonable conclusion as they find her tied to her bed with iron chains.  Nell is crying, screaming she wants her mother, but saying she is also bad and won’t go to Heaven.  You really do get a lot of sympathy for Nell, for how she is oppressed in this family, for what she goes through, and in how the actress portrays her as this frail thing.

They release her and then night falls – they hear sounds in Nell’s room – she is standing in the dark hall – sleepwalking?  She looks threatening in the dark, and in the slow ways that she moves.  She tries to drown a doll and then freaks out when woken up.  Iris gets audio of her saying Latin, making baby noises.  They learn from the doctor at the hospital that she is pregnant – so now we have our medical explanation for her behavior!  It is explained as caused by an underlying trauma, as the pregnancy is assumed to be due to incest as the Father claims that Nell is a 16 year old virgin.

And while they are napping that night Nell takes the camera…freakishly examines herself in mirror out of focus…strips naked…goes to the barn…and kills the cat with the camera so that the camera records it all. (Seriously, the first time we saw this movie, this was the scene that unnerved us completely.)

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She then walks around with camera with blood on the lens. She now has the power to see the unseen, to look at this the regular camera man would not, all of which Marcus is not aware of — and with this new power she is also able to kill.  We suddenly experience her view of the world, as a possessed person.  It is the most we get into her subjectivity up to that point – it is her voice that is saying kitty kitty before killing it.  Her agency is through the camera, just as Marcus’ agency is through the use of the camera to expose exorcism as a sham– or it was, until this night, when Nell’s actual possession undermined his power.

Then the power goes out.  Loud thumpings upstairs.  Her stare is unnerving.  She has large eyes, so when she stares, it is like a doll looking at you.  And where does the musical soundtrack come from? That indicates post-production…

Marcus says he will do a second exorcism – but does he still believe this is all fake?

Exorcism in the barn, just like with Emily Rose.  Nell is chained to a post in the barn’s floor.  She is controlled by her father, and she has internalized her father’s control as the right thing to do, thinking that she is weak and having no control.  She also loses control to the demon – losing the ability to see – saying it is coming through her skin – then her body contorts.  That is when Marcus speaks to Abalam, who says Nell is in the fire.  But the voice of the demon is a woman’s voice – just sounds like an older, more mature, more confident woman than how Nell is portrayed.  That is quite different from all the other exorcism movies, where the demon’s voice is masculinized. As with the sequel, we see the demon as Nell, as a more self-assured form of her.

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This one is taunting, not at all like Nell — it is sexual, offering Marcus a “blowing job” – which makes Marcus doubt this is a demon. “I don’t think you are a demon. I think you are an innocent little girl.” Since only an innocent little girl would call the act of oral sex a “blowing job.”  But demon Nell says she isn’t innocent, that she got pregnant from a boy named Logan. Marcus says what is happening is not demonic but shame – Nell tells the story in third person about her time with Logan.  She said yes, it wasn’t rape.  But is it really Nell? Or is the demon spinning lies and manipulating people, using Nell’s sex for that purpose.

And then everything seems to be fine. They are reunited with Pastor Manley, who the Father said they stopped seeing as they stopped believing in what he was preaching.  And apparently that is that.

They leave and stop by where Logan works.  Logan says she is lying – it did not happen, since he’s gay.

But Pastor Manley was lying.  As was Nell.  They were all lying – to get them out of the house.

Two exorcisms – one fake, one unsuccessful. Nell is left being possessed — right?

They return to the house to find Satanic symbols scrawled on the walls.  And they go off into the woods, following sounds. Iris thinks it is insane to pursue this any further.

Our power to know this world is through the camera – whoever controls the camera controls how we experience the world. This is the power.  Just as whoever controls our beliefs about the world controls our hopes and fears.  If a religion can convince us that demons are real, then they can control our fears for our immortal souls.  But in an era of doubt, the religion perhaps needs more solid proof on the existence of demons.  That could explain the ending.

The come upon a clearing where a ceremony is occurring.  The Father is tied up as people are forcing Nell to give birth. Pastor Manley is overseeing the Satanic ritual. Iris wants to leave. The cultists take something not human from Nell – it has spines.  They call it Abalam, and throw it into the fire. We hear crows and the fire explodes, with growls. So basically we are getting Rosemary’s Baby and Constantine, where  a woman is being used as a conduit to release a demon unto the world.  That is the true horror — not the possession but the pregnancy is the real threat to mankind.

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Marcus goes to confronts it, saying it cannot have the soul of Nell.  Iris and the cameraman run.  Iris is captured, gets cut up but the cultists. Caleb kills the cameraman, and the film goes black.

But Marcus confronting the demon here is probably what stopped Nell from becoming possessed at the end of this film, and why Abalam is continually chasing her in the sequel, in an attempt to merge with her. Given how the second one ends up, then Marcus effectively stood in the way of Nell receiving her power.  Fulfilling the same role of all the other men of faith in exorcism cinema, Marcus is representing the patriarchy and male oppression that prevents a young woman from reaching her destiny and becoming what she can be.

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