This movie is a particular genre that I enjoy for its prophetic edge. I call it Found Footage Horror. It’s the idea that the movie we are watching was the footage that was shot by someone making a documentary about something very dangerous that leads to their demise. The Blair Witch Project was the first (and still among the best), Paranormal Activity was the biggest money making movie in history and was this genre. And now The Last Exorcism.
The story is that these kids are making a documentary of an exorcist who has lost his faith and become more of a secular humanist. He used to fake exorcisms for people in order to help rid them of inner “demons” they naively thought were real, but from his view were simply manifestations of psychological problems. The exorcist’s name is Cotton Marcus, an obvious reference to Cotton Mather, infamous Puritan of the Salem witch trials. So Cotton is going to show us how he fakes the exorcisms because he has decided to stop engaging in them, due to someone dying in the midst of an exorcism. He is giving it all up in order to be more consistent with his secular humanism.
The only problem is that the subject of this last exorcism, Nell, is really possessed by a real demon. Only Cotton doesn’t know it because even when she manifests he is able to explain away her behavior as disturbed psychosis due to an incestuous relationship with her father. This movie explores the nature of blindness that a secular worldview can have when confronted with spiritual reality. The idea is that we are limited in understanding reality by our presuppositions and philosophical categories. If our worldview precludes any possibility of the supernatural, well then, if we are faced with the real supernatural, no matter how convincing it is, our worldview will explain away that reality in terms of our own categories and limited language and definitions. Thus, all “demons” are simply mental illness or psychological expressions.
So when the filmmakers discover at the very end that it was all real demonic possession, it is too late, and they are destroyed by the very evil they thought they could “expose” as fake. This is a movie about hubris, and how we are incapable of defeating evil if we do not have a proper understanding of it, and how we will be defeated by that evil for our willful ignorance of pride. It skewers the modernist pride of empirical “knowledge,” the hubris of Enlightenment scientism, the folly of materialism. It is a Christian morality tale in the extreme.
I love this genre because I think it embodies the new world of digital filmmaking where anyone can make a movie and we don’t need millions of dollars and big studio sets and cameras. We just need a great story and some good directing and acting. Also, with YouTube and Facebook etc. everyone is a filmmaker, putting up their little videos of their lives. This genre embodies that notion as well as the postmodern play with reality that much art is currently engaged in. There is no music soundtrack usually (Where it is used in this movie, it does not work) and the “real people with their personal cameras” technique is one more way to enhance the suspension of disbelief so necessary for a good movie to reach in and grab you. It carries a sense of reality one step beyond traditional moviemaking. Another aspect is the general lack of big special effects or “movie-like” sensational visuals. It is the illusion that this really happened, so the moment you see anything that smacks of Hollywood filmmaking, you are taken out of the movie. Where The Last Exorcism fails is precisely where it uses some special effects to show the demon and create an “inhuman” fetus birth. At that moment everyone pretty much sighs and the movie is ruined, unlike Blair Witch, which retained that sense of mystery to the end, giving you a creepy feeling of reality.