The Last Exorcism
dir. Daniel Stamm, 2010, USA
dir. Samuel Maoz, 2009, Israel/Germany
Now playing at theaters everywhere is The Last Exorcism, a stale horror film that applies the now-tired mock-documentary format to the demon possession subgenre. Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is Lebanon, a riveting war film about the experience of young Israeli soldiers performing a futile search mission in a small town during the Lebanon war of 1982. Each movie uses a different methodology to plunge the viewer into a world of relentless subjectivity. Only one of them is worth your time.
The Last Exorcism concerns a Louisiana preacher/con-man named Cotton Marcus who performs exorcisms as a means of separating superstitious, rural people from their money. The film’s central conceit is that Marcus is on the verge of retiring but agrees to perform one “last exorcism” to reveal the tricks of his trade to a documentary film crew. Upon arriving at the farmhouse where the exorcism is to take place, Marcus and crew find themselves in for more than they bargained as it soon becomes apparent that the little Linda Blair stand-in may be suffering from something more than a mild case of hysteria.
Everything we see in The Last Exorcism is confined to what can be seen through the digital camera of the film crew in the movie, a pseudo-clever device that leads to all kinds of narrative implausibility and actually inhibits the film from being as suspenseful as it should be. What started off as a relatively novel way to make a horror movie with The Blair Witch Project has now become a veritable cottage industry in the wake of Paranormal Activity, the Spanish Rec movies, Quarantine and now this. Unfortunately, it has become all too easy for low-budget independent films to justify poorly recorded image and sound (not to mention lack of production design) on the basis that it’s the characters within the movie who are operating their own consumer-grade video equipment. I say the buck stops here. (To be fair, the film’s one saving grace is lead actor Patrick Fabian, effective as the smug con-man. He deserves better than this.)
A different kind of exorcism occurs in Lebanon, the 2009 Venice Film Festival Best Picture winner from Israeli writer/director Samuel Maoz, based on his own wartime experiences from twenty seven years earlier. Lebanon centers on four inexperienced soldiers who are thrown together as members of a tank crew and ordered to search a Lebanese town after it has been heavily bombarded by the Israeli air force. The only problem is that the soldiers are not given clear instructions on exactly who or what they are looking for. It is both shocking and absurd that men so young, unskilled and unprepared would ever be put in such a dangerous position. Tension mounts as the tank crew encounters Syrian guerrilas, Lebanese Arab enemies and a Lebanese Christian ally who attempts to give the soldiers orders that may be at odds with those of their commanding officer.
Everything we see in Lebanon is confined to what the soldiers can see from inside the tank and Maoz proves that you don’t need a shaky, handheld camera in order to generate a sense of “being there-ness.” Tightly framed close-ups, low-key lighting and a yellow-green monochromatic color scheme are used to make viewers feel that they are inside the tank with the characters and to convey a feeling of overwhelming claustrophobia. Practically the only glimpses of the world outside come from the point-of-view shots from the tank’s gun-turret periscope. But even these shots contribute to feelings of anxiety and unease since everything in the periscope’s field of vision is glimpsed through cross-hairs, which makes the potential of violence feel omnipresent.
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Lebanon rises to the technical challenge of shooting a small group of actors in a tightly confined space and turns the ostensible limitations of such a project into a powerful visceral experience. (Of course, it also helps that the well-written script gives us four distinct and memorable characters.) By contrast, The Last Exorcism adopts a mock-doc style seemingly for no reason other than to avoid having to make more creative aesthetic decisions. But even that wouldn’t be so bad if the style had been applied to something more than a tacky pastiche of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, either of which you would be better off watching or watching again than spending your time with this unnecessary retread.