(2010) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley, John Wright Jr., Shanna Forrestall, Justin Shafer, Carol Sutton, Victoria Patenaude, John Wilmot, Becky Fly, Denise Lee, Logan Craig Lee. Directed by Daniel Stamm
Belief is a powerful thing. Once we lock something in our mind that we believe is so, we make it so consciously or unconsciously. The mind can make us sick – and be a powerful healer.
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Fabian) has been a Southern hellfire and brimstone preacher since he was a child. Like many preachers, he also performs exorcisms. He doesn’t actually out demons; he uses parlor tricks and special effects to suggest to his “patients” that the demon has left them. Most of the time, they feel much better.
But Cotton’s own son was born with serious medical issues and the death of someone during an exorcism (not one Cotton was involved with) have opened his eyes to the harm he could well be doing. He decides to perform one last exorcism and chooses a subject at random; the Sweetzers.
He enlists a documentary crew to capture his last exorcism on film and show the practitioners to be the charlatans they are. The “victim” is Nell (Bell), a bright and cheerful teen whose father Louis (Herthum) is a fundamentalist who makes Pat Robertson look like Bill Maher. Nell’s brother Caleb (Jones) is suspicious of the whole thing and with good reason.
Nonetheless, Cotton convinces Louis to let them perform the exorcism and with the usual smoke and mirrors, Cotton is successful. He leaves the farm, thinking that he is done with exorcisms and finished with the Sweetzer family. He has no idea how wrong he is.
The conceit of the movie is that you’re seeing the “documentary” footage shot by the crew; as the movie wears on and things get more and more strange, the unexplainable tends to feel more realistic and believable than it might on a Hollywood sound stage. That works to the movie’s favor.
Also to the good is Fabian as Cotton Marcus. Cotton is a bit of a scalawag, a born salesman for God who can earnestly sell his flock on the power of Jesus as easily as he does in the deliciousness of his grandma’s banana bread recipe. He is also suffering a bit of a crisis of faith; he is tired of the games and the tricks and yearns to set things right. His family isn’t so sure about his change of heart but his wife Shanna (Forrestall) supports him.
Of the film crew, we mostly see Iris (Bahr), the producer and sound engineer (hey, it’s a low budget shoot) and she delivers the requisite amount of fear and panic. Herthum is also steadfast as the farmer whose belief and faith never waver, to the point that he’s willing to kill someone to prove it.
Despite its flaws (and indeed, occasionally because of them) this is as effective horror film as I’ve seen recently, a pleasant surprise that came from producer Eli Roth, who helmed such films as Cabin Fever and Hostel. There are some real scares here on a real low budget, mostly revolving around Nell who gets tossed about like a rag doll in some scenes. There is some subtle commentary on faith, religion and the gullibility of man. There are some solid performances. Basically, this is just a well-written movie that has an ending that is unfortunate, but that doesn’t negate the hour plus of film that preceded it. If not for that ending, this would have a perfect rating and that doesn’t happen for horror films often, but this one very nearly deserved it.
WHY RENT THIS: One of the scariest horror movies of the last few years. Really makes good use of the whole found footage genre. Surprisingly well-acted.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending was really disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few somewhat disturbing crime scene images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie spent ten years in development following a “60 Minutes” story on the subject which led to a bidding frenzy.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Real Stories of Exorcism featurette looks at actual exorcism and interviews people who have been exorcised. There is also footage of the actor’s auditions on the Blu-Ray edition.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $67.7M on a $1.8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster in every sense of the word.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness continues!