Last night, I went to see The Last Exorcism. And… well. One of the most frustrating things about discussing a recently released work in any narrative medium is not being able to talk about the ending. Because sometimes a spectacular ending can encapsulate everything that’s right about a book, or a play, or a game, or a film. And sometimes, it can encapsulate everything that’s wrong.
The ending of The Last Exorcism fits into neither category.
This is for the most part a surprisingly smart film. Cotton Marcus, a former Reverend with a curiously back-to-front name, lost his faith after realising that science saved his dying son, not God. He’d been raised into the role by his father, and throughout his upbringing had witnessed a number of exorcisms. But having lost his faith, and having researched the topic, he grew concerned. And when reports start to file in about people having been killed by so-called exorcisms, he decided to debunk the myth once and for all.
So, with a documentary maker and a cameraman in tow, he sets off to the house of a man who believes his daughter is possessed by a demon. He rigs up speakers to play demonic sounds, attaches nylon strings to pictures so he can make them shake, and puts a chemical in a bowl of water to make it bubble when the girl sticks her feet in it. This is how easy it is to fool people, and to take advantage of their faith, he demonstrates. But he does believe it has benefits. It’s like the placebo effect, he basically explains. People’s psychological problems really do seem to be eased if they believe strongly enough.
Predictably, though, after the crew leave the house, strange things start happening, and they find themselves back once more, with the girl increasingly going a bit nutty. What ensues is a little like Brian Bertino’s The Strangers would have been, if Brian Bertino had remembered to write a story for it: lots of hiding, chasing, knife-slashing and generally excellent suspense building, in a house that’s suspiciously dark even with all the lights turned on. But there’s a vein of smartness running through it. Cotton continues to believe in science, not faith. He urges the girl’s father to take her to a psychiatrist, but he refuses. He tries to rope in the local priest to talk some rational sense into the father. Etcetera. It’s all very nice. And by the time we reach the end, there’s a clever revelation, which sets up a refreshingly sensible conclusion. One you still have to make something of a leap for it to make full sense, admittedly, but refreshingly understated nevertheless.
But then it doesn’t end.
Something happens which makes the documentary crew utterly mentally go back to the house. And then everything goes absolutely barmy. Within, quite literally, the final five minutes of the film. Not only does it go barmy – and I don’t think it’s an unnecessary spoiler to say that the ending features a fire-demon – it also does that hideous story-ending thing of throwing in a bunch of strange new plot elements. So suddenly, a key character has a complete personality transformation. Why? It’s never explained. Two slightly less key characters are also thrown in bizarre new directions. What the hell’s going on? It is – and I’m being very serious about this – only glanced for seconds by peeking the camera through some trees. And that’s not to mention the weird creepy static-infused image that’s flashed up on screen for a split second about five times.
Then the credits roll.
The sound in the cinema as the lights came on was interesting. It’s rare to see so many people leave a horror film in fits of laughter. I didn’t even leave disappointed. It was a very special lesson in how to ruin a perfectly good film in five minutes, but that lesson was so impressively bad that I felt totally satisfied. As dreadful as the ending was, it was a perfect way to come back to happy reality after a very effective horror film. For that, The Last Exorcism, I commend you.