Suspension of disbelief is such a funny thing. Once you have it, once you make an audience believe that what you’re telling it is real, man you can do anything. ANYTHING. But at the same time its so utterly fragile, and if you lose that suspension of disbelief, if you somehow break that trust once earned? God help you, because your movie is about to fail.
Which is exactly what happens with the The Last Exorcism, a film so effective it became easily my favorite horror film since The Strangers. Until an ending so bad, it breaks the movie. That’s the only way I know how to describe it that the movie is completely broken by it, with a suddenness like someone flipped a switch. Its such a stunning left turn into dreadful, with such jaw dropping thoroughness, that it just has to be seen to be believed.
All along in the theater I was composing my review, a much happier review then the one I’m writing now. I was going to praise the movie for its slow burn of suspense, for its commanding and eerie atmosphere, for the dedicated performances of the leads, for its practical effects and scary sequences, for its structural daring leaving the question of the supernatural open for almost the entire film, for its skeptical, yet respectful treatment of religion. And then the ending comes along and completely negates it.
I’m having trouble even verbalizing what pisses me off so bad. It’s so compulsory, almost like an allergic reaction. One of the phrases that I perhaps over use is the metaphor of film as a tightrope walk. But here it fits, because you see this movie walk this exact tone for ninety minutes, and then watch it swan dive and dash its brains on the on the ground in the last possible second.
But lets take a step back here. Cotton starts off as charismatic fundie preacher, who doesn’t actually believe in God, but is too charming ever to come out and say it. Undergoing a crisis of conscience he decides to allow a camera crew to come with him. True to form, The Last Exorcism does genuinely feel like one of those “quirky individuals” docs like Slasher or Best Worst Movie. It then develops it into a pretty effective satire of religion, with a hefty helping of southern gothic (which made it a very interesting double feature with Winter’s Bone, let me tell you). It grounds itself in the detail of the place, one of my favorite touches is how whenever Cotton introduces himself as being "From Baton Rouge" the person he's talking to reacts in suspicion, as if that teeming metropolis isn't Southern enough. More importantly it grounds the characters so that when things start to turn into a very effective little horror film, we actually care what happens to them. The film manages to keep the demon/psychosis, argument in the air for almost its entire runtime. The movie generates a huge amount of tension, without ever once resorting to one of the standard Exorcist movie tricks (until its second to last, and very effective confrontation about 80 minutes in). Whether its psychosis or Satan a homely, over friendly teenage girl, turns into a blank eyed figure of terror, and things are set up so the situation keeps getting worse.
Then comes the ending, which does not merely lack the courage of its convictions, but lacks the courage to lack the courage of its convictions. Its not that the film is anti climatic, it's just non climatic. Shying away from resolution in a way that’s not ambiguous or clever, but lazy.
I’ll I can say, is that if the ending of House Of The Devil bothered you? I don’t even know how you’d give this shit a pass.