The First Purge


Viewers can now binge the Purge.

(2018) Thriller (Universal/BlumhouseY’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul, Mo McRae, Jermel Howard, Siya, Christian Robinson, Steve Harris, Derek Basco, D.K. Bowser, Mitchell Edwards, Maria Rivera, Chyna Layne, Ian Blackman, Melonie Diaz. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

The Purge series posits a somewhat fascist American government creating a 12=hour period annually during which all crime is legal, including murder. Those who can afford to leave, do – or they set up their homes as impenetrable fortresses. For the less wealthy, the alternative is to hunker down and ride it out, hoping the crazies won’t find them.

The latest film in the franchise (which has since also added a ten-episode “event” cable TV series, an ad for which appeared mid-credits at the film’s conclusion) goes back to the beginning, when the New Founding Fathers – the only political party standing – have emerged as the de facto rulers after an economic crisis has crippled the United States. Eager to purge the roles of welfare recipients and those getting federal assistance, they enlist a kooky psychiatrist (Tomei) to come up with a plan. The experiment is limited to Staten Island, where the government entices residents to stay by offering $5000 cash if they’ll wear contact lenses mounted with miniaturized cameras, giving everybody’s eyes a bizarre glow.

Nya (Davis) is having none of it. She sees the Purge for what it is – a racist attempt to take out the poor and the dark-skinned. Her ex-boyfriend Dmitri (Noel) is more pragmatic; he’s a drug dealer who is staying only because relocating his product would be too risky. So , with rival dealers seeing the Purge as an opportunity and other segments of the population throwing huge parties, oblivious to the danger that confronts them, and the government sending in hit squads when the violence isn’t enough to capture the imagination of the populous, Nya and Dmitri are going to have a very long night indeed.

There is no doubt that the series is allegorical, accurately predicting America’s turn towards extremism back in 2013 when the series debuted. The MAGA-like hat that decorated the poster was another clue; there’s even a reference to female genital grabbing if that isn’t enough. All in all, I’m not sure if Trump supporters are going to see this as elitist liberalism or a reactionary wet dream and respond accordingly.

The performances of the mostly unknown leads are solid enough and some of the murder scenes are cleverly staged but the movie is absolutely riddled with tropes and stock characters to the point that it becomes depressingly predictable. There are definitely signs that the franchise is losing its steam and doesn’t really have the courage of its convictions any longer. Still, those who appreciated the first three films in the series will likely appreciate this one, although they – like I – may not embrace it as a fitting addition to the franchise.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the murder sequences are extremely effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many clichés and way too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a plethora of often disturbing violence, some sexual content, profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in the franchise not to be directed by James DeMonaco. Although he did write the screenplay.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assault on Precinct 13
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A Reindeer’s Journey

Grace Jones: Bloodlight + Bami


Nobody owns the stage like Grace Jones.

(2017) Music Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly Dunbar. Directed by Sophie Fiennes

At 70, Grace Jones remains what she always has been – a fashion innovator, an icon in the LGBTQ community, a fierce personality and an unparalleled performer. Although she did a 1985 documentary on herself, that was much more of a concert film.

Jones throughout her career has been deliberately enigmatic, meticulously maintaining her image which is intimidating and alluring at once, the very pinnacle of androgyny combining performance artist and disco diva. In her heyday she was one of the most successful artists specializing in club music and yet few but her most devoted fans (and most of her fans are, to be fair, devoted) knew much about her background.

You won’t learn much here either. Fiennes follows the legend as she records her most recent reggae-tinged album in her home country of Jamaica where she was born – her family are prominently featured. At home, she affects a Jamaican patois which is largely missing from her speech now although it must be said that she adopts the accent of wherever she is – an upper class British lilt when in London, a slightly French twang in Paris and upstate New York (she grew up from age 13 near Syracuse) when in the States.

All that aside, Jones has had the kind of career that has been influential far beyond her own immediate circle and further beyond the confines of any catwalk, concert hall or movie. She deserves a definitive documentary but let’s face it; we may never get to see one and this one certainly isn’t it. I will grant it’s far more revealing about her background than any other documentary I’ve seen on the lady but she is a difficult nut to crack. She doesn’t tolerate shit at all nor does she have to. She has never been particularly open about her background; while she sometimes complains here about the grind that comes with being a pop diva (she endures a particularly insulting music video because as she reminds us, the fees she gets for it will pay for the entire album she’s recording. While she is clearly adored by her fans (most but not all of whom are gay) and she is more or less accessible to them, she also keeps her distance as well.

It doesn’t help that Fiennes has delivered a fairly disjointed documentary that jumps from place to place, inserts concert footage (which is the best part of the film by the way) and almost never gives any particular insight as to who Grace Jones is. She also fails to identify nearly anyone who appears onscreen, whether backing musicians, dancers, family or friends – hence the somewhat abbreviated cast list.

Yes, I get that she is the very definition of fierce and is not above confrontations when she thinks they are needed; I get that she is spiritually connected to her family and her homeland; I get that she enjoys the larger-than-life limelight and the persona that she’s carefully crafted over the years. But what lies behind the excessive masks and hats, the glitter and the make-up, the long model legs (that are still as long and as beautiful as ever)? We don’t get even a glimpse and that’s what I really wanted to see.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The direction is somewhat haphazard. One gets the sense that the director wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace Jones: State of Grace
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cold War

The Rape of Recy Taylor


Portrait of a brave woman.

(2017) Drama (Augusta) Richard Corbitt, Alma Daniels, Recy Taylor, Crystal Feimster, James Johnson II, Danielle McGuire, Leamon Lee, James York, Larry Smith, Chris Money, Tommy Bernardi (voice), Tom Gibbs (voice), Jack Kyser, John L. Payne, Esther Cooper Jackson, Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Nancy Buirski

We like to think of America as a great shining beacon, a light of freedom and democracy for the entire world. However, it is no secret that America has its dark side as well, from its treatment of native peoples (some would say attempted genocide) to the advent of slavery. It is the latter that shapes our country perhaps most negatively, from ongoing displays of racism and thuggery to the demeaning of black culture and African-American achievements to the segregation of the black community and accompanying lack of educational and career opportunities that white children take for granted.

African-American women have in many ways borne the brunt of the post-bellum white American racism. In the days of King Cotton and plantations, white slave owners routinely used black women as sexual objects, sometimes allowing their teenage sons to pick out a particularly fetching slave to use to initiate them into sexual manhood, although this is scarcely the behavior of men. Then again, the white slave owning population didn’t see their black chattel as human; they were to be used as they saw fit and if that was brutal, well, it was a step up from the jungles, wasn’t it?

That attitude persisted well after the end of the Civil War (some would say it persists to this day). In 1944, a 24-year-old mother of a 9-month-old daughter and wife of a sharecropper named Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was approached by six teenage white boys in a car who force her into the car at gunpoint. They drove her blindfolded into a remote part of the woods, raping her repeatedly over the course of three to four hours, causing so much internal damage that the young woman would never be able to bear children again. After the ordeal, the boys dropped her off at the side of the road with a stern warning to tell nobody.

In those days, it was not unusual for African-American women to be sexually assaulted by white men but it was extremely rare for those sorts of sexual assaults to go reported, particularly in places like Abbeville, Alabama where the assault took place. Nonetheless when Recy arrived home the first thing she did was report the incident, identifying as many of the attackers as she could.

Local sheriff Louis Corbitt (whose family owned Recy’s ancestors and after the 13th Amendment freed them, the ex-slaves took the Corbitt family name as their own) reluctantly took the statement but did nothing. The boys were questioned and released. Recy, who’d never had any trouble with the police – none in her family ever had – was falsely labeled a prostitute. With the help of the NAACP and their lead investigator Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Recy persisted in search of justice which in the Deep South was a rare thing for African-Americans to achieve. Despite two trips to the grand jury – made up of all white men – nobody was ever charged with the crime.

Documentary filmmaker Buirski was inspired by the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire (the author appears as an expert here) telling the tale of Taylor, who was a cause célèbre in the black press which widely reported the story around the country whereas it was largely ignored by the mainstream press which largely ignored crimes against African-Americans (and some would say it still does). The efforts of the black press largely forced the Alabama governor to conduct an investigation which would lead to a second grand jury and while the results remained the same, it had more to do with the color of the defendants and more so the color of the victim than with any semblance of law.

There are a lot of talking heads here, including the surviving members of Taylor’s family – mainly her younger brother and sister Richard Corbitt and Alma Daniels – and a variety of experts. While I’m not a fan of interview overuse, I have to admit that Crystal Feimster, an academic from Yale whose expertise on the history of the Civil Rights movement is put to good use here, is impressive. Articulate to the point of eloquence, she clearly and intelligently brings the plight of black women of that era to bold life. She rightly assigns them credit for being a driving force in the Civil Rights movement, connecting the dots from Recy Taylor to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King. Whenever Feimster is on camera, my ears would always perk up because I knew she would have something insightful to say.

But this isn’t all just talking heads. Buirski deftly weaves in rare archival footage, family films and “race films” – movies made by black filmmakers for black audiences going back to the silent era until the mid-50s. They have gone largely ignored except for all but the most dedicated film buffs and academics so seeing some clips from these films was doubly thrilling for this critic, both from a historic standpoint and from a cinematic standpoint. The first image we see, in fact, was from a race film – a terrified black woman running down a country road, clearly in fear for her life. Although it was uncommon to discuss rape or portray it onscreen in those days, race films depicted it as a part of life because for black women, it was just that.

The state of Alabama would go on to issue an official apology for its handling of her case some 70 years after the fact but the movie doesn’t necessarily have an all-positive message; family members of the rapists still view the acts of their siblings as the actions of boys just acting like boys; things just got a little bit out of control, that’s all. It is disturbing that even now, approaching three quarters of a century later, there is no ownership of these heinous actions and no accepting of blame. One wonders if it would be any different for them if the victim had been white.

This is a movie that should be shown in every high school in America, not only because it graphically illustrates the ugly aspects of racism but also of sexism as well. All of the perpetrators of this crime were high school age. They regarded African-Americans as sub-human and women, particularly black women, as objects meant to be used to satisfy their carnal desires. We continue to live in a rape culture now; the real consequences of that  culture are excellently documented here. Adding to the tone is a brilliant pairing of Dinah Washington’s jagged “This Bitter Earth” with the elegiac strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight.

It should also be said that the film’s title should warn those who are sensitive or prone to being triggered; while the description of Recy’s attack (and an attempted sexual assault on another woman) aren’t graphic, they may bring some painful and unwanted memories to the foreground. Be cautious in that regard.

Given the events at Charlottesville this past summer or the ongoing demonization of Black Lives Matter and of those protesting police brutality against African-Americans, there is little doubt that race relations in the Land of the Free still have a long, painful way to go. What I find most depressing is that while we may console ourselves that “these things happened 70 years ago, things are different now” I have my doubts that if a 24-year-old African-American wife and mother walking home from church in 2017 were to be raped by five white men that the outcome would be any different.

REASONS TO GO: The archival and “race film” footage is fascinating. Feimster is an eloquent and intelligent speaker. The film is powerful and moving. Here you’ll find a very specific and damning account of racism.
REASONS TO STAY: There are an awful lot of talking heads here. Although not graphic, the depictions of rape and attempted rape may be disturbing to survivors.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains descriptions of sexual assault and racially-motivated violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buirski is the founder of the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Columbus

Chapter & Verse


Just chillin' in Harlem.

Just chillin’ in Harlem.

(2016) Drama (Paladin) Daniel Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, Khadim Diop, Justin Martin, Muhammed Cunningham, Gabrielle Rembert, Gary Perez, Bryonn Bain, Steve Cannon, David D. Wright, Kapil Bawa, Joshua Alscher, Joyce Walker, Michael A. Walrond, Jindal Joseph, Kenny Chin, Robert Galinsky, Alex Tavis, Elise Link. Directed by Jamal Joseph

 

It’s a particularly mean world out there, especially if you’re a young African-American male. Opportunities are few and far between and if you are just paroled from prison, they are damn near non-existent.

Lance Ingram (Beaty) – the “S” stands for Sir as his daddy had wanted his son called Sir Lancelot before the cooler head of the mom prevailed – is finding that out the hard way. Incarcerated for the crime of “being stupid” as he puts it, Ingram is determined to tread the straight and narrow. With computer repair skills learned in prison, he hits the pavement trying to find meaningful work – and finding nothing. His tough parole officer (Perez) hooks him up with a food pantry delivering meals to residents of Harlem who are unable to feed themselves. When his boss (Leyva) discovers that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, Ingram is forced to hoof it and take the subway to get his meals delivered.

One of his clients is Miss Maddy (Devine) who in frustration throws food at Ingram when the ex-con gets the order wrong and gives her cabbage (which she’s allergic to) and salt (which is bad for her). However, he does manage to redeem himself and becomes close with the family, including Maddy’s 15-year-old grandson Ty (Diop) who seems to be headed down the same rotten path that Ingram took, hanging out with gang bangers and developing a healthy disrespect for the values that his grandmother has lived by.

One of Ingram’s best friends is Jomo (Hardwick) who has a successful hair styling/barbershop business in Harlem and who helps set up Ingram with a computer repair business. Things are starting to get complicated though – Ingram’s boss has developed an unhealthy not to mention inappropriate sexual attraction towards him, Ty is getting deeper and deeper into gang culture and the icing on the cake is that Maddy is facing a terrible issue of her own and when she turns to Ingram for help, he can’t bring himself to do what she asks.

I would like to say that this is a movie that captures the essence of Harlem but I don’t live in Harlem and never have so I can’t vouch for the accuracy but it certainly feels authentic and if this isn’t how Harlem really is, it is in many ways the way I would imagine it to be. Yeah, the streets are mean and often violent but there’s also a sense of connection that is largely absent from white neighborhoods these days.

Beaty is a find. He conveys the power and strength of a young De Niro only in a less explosive form. His strength is quiet; it is obvious he’s not a man to be messed with, even though he says or does nothing overt. Ingram you see was once upon a time known as Crazy L from 118th Street, a gang general known for his violence and temper. He’s not that guy anymore, but Beaty makes sure the audience knows that he could give that guy a call and bring him right back to do some major ass whooping if needed. And, as the film amply explains, it is very much needed.

Devine and Hardwick are both fine actors and acquit themselves well here, although Devine’s character in many ways feels like a prototypical African-American stereotype of the take-no-guff grandma who will whip the ass of a young gang banger who dares to wear his pants down below his waist. Maddy, you speak for all of us on that one.

Some of the other performances aren’t up to that level. Joseph utilized a lot of neighborhood talent but some of them try a little bit too hard and the end result are some stilted, stiff performances in the supporting department. For the most part they can be overlooked though because the main characters seem to be in good hands.

Joseph clearly has a cinematic voice but needs to refine it. This is a promising effort that has a lot of good things going for it; I could have done without some of the clichés that show up in the third act, but generally speaking this is a work to be proud of. I think that Joseph has it in him to be a talent along the lines of Spike Lee or John Singleton or for that matter a Martin Scorsese if he wants to go that route. Me I think that he can take the poetry of the streets of Harlem and translate it into something visual, a noble endeavor indeed. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with the scent of authenticity. It feels like you’re getting a little slice of Harlem.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is a little bit stiff. It’s a bit heavy on the alpha male posturing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of profanity, a little bit of sensuality, some violence and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Writer-director Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther, is now a community activist in Harlem. Beaty who co-wrote the script, actually did a stretch in Leavenworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Deadly Virtues: Love Honour Obey

Séraphine


Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water...

Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water…

(2008) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviéve Mnich, Adélaide Leroux, Nico Rogner, Franҫoise Lebrun, Héléne Hardouin, Serge Lariviére, Léna Bréban, Sandrine Bodenes, Muriel Riou, Dominique Pozzetto, Josette Ménard, Xavier Pottier, Jean-Pascal Abribat, Anne Benoit. Directed by Martin Provost

 

This is a film about the French artist Séraphine Louis (Moreau), a doughty housekeeper by day who painted miraculous works of art by night. She believed herself to be instructed by angels to paint and she was indeed self-taught. Her work caught the eye of German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur) who had also discovered Rousseau; he helped bring her work into the public eye and sold some of her paintings but her delusions eventually caught up with her and she would pass away in a French asylum in 1942. The movie is mainly about the years in which most of her painting was done, and depicts little of her early years, showing instead her abject poverty and her connection to the trees and flowers.

Moreau is brilliant here; she is one of the greatest actresses to ever come out of Belgium and this is one of her best performances; the film is worth seeking out for that alone. It is also beautiful to look at as cinematographer Laurent Brunet uses Louis’ own work for inspiration, as well as capturing the bucolic village life of Senlis (where Louis lived most of her life) near Chantilly.

WHY RENT THIS: Moreau’s performance is breathtaking. The cinematography is beautiful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is a bit slow-moving..
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won seven Césars at the 2008 César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) including Best Film and Best Actress for Moreau.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a photo gallery of the real Séraphine Louis’ paintings.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.2M on a $3.6M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Begging Naked
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

Vanishing on 7th Street


Hayden Christensen isn't apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

Hayden Christensen isn’t apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

(2010) Horror (Magnet) Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore, Taylor Groothuis, Jordan Trovillion, Neal Huff, Larry Fessenden, Arthur Cartwright, Hugh Maguire, Erin Nicole Brolley, Stephen Clark, Caroline Clifford-Taylor, Shana Schultz. Directed by Brad Anderson

It is engrained in our nature to be afraid of the dark. That is a legacy from our caveman ancestors, who were terrified by things in the night that were likely to eat them as not. But we live in civilized times. There’s nothing malevolent in the dark is there?

Paul (Leguizamo) is a projectionist in a Detroit movie theater. Like many in that particular profession, he can get quite bored on the job, so he brings with him a book to read and a hat with a lantern on it to read by. When there’s a brief power outage, he is for a moment the only one with light. When the lights come back on, he is shocked to discover that every person in the theater has vanished, leaving behind their clothes, shoes and jewelry. They’re just…gone

He meets a security guard (Cartwright) who had a flashlight on when the lights went out. As they investigate, the lights go out again. Then the guard’s flashlight fails and a shocked Paul watches him disappear before his eyes. Then Paul’s light goes out…

Luke (Christensen) wakes up to find the city deserted. A tough TV news reporter, he heads to the station to see if he can piece together what’s going on. He thinks that there is something in the shadows and that the key to survival is light. Before he is forced to flee the station in the receding light, he sees a video from Chicago that indicates that the Windy City may well be safe.

Luke makes his way to a bar which is one of the few places with light left in Detroit. A portable generator is running them and a suspicious 13-year-old boy named James (Latimore) is the only one there. His mother, the bartender, had stepped out but should be back any moment, a scenario Luke finds highly unlikely.

In short order, they are joined by Rosemary (Newton), a junkie whose baby disappeared, and eventually by Paul who reappeared at a lighted bus stop when his lantern hat re-activated. He is grievously injured however and Luke is obliged to rescue him by the skin of his teeth.

It turns out that there is a malevolence in the shadow that is capable of fooling those who remain alive to step into the dark. With a supernatural darkness enveloping Detroit, Luke knows it’s a matter of time before the generator fails and the only choice they have left is to make a run for it to Chicago, but that’s a dangerous proposition. And as Paul has discovered, what has the events in modern day Detroit have to do with the lost Roanoke colony of the 17th century?

Director Anderson has some pretty impressive titles to his credit, including Transsiberian and The Machinist. While this isn’t on the level of those films, it is pretty nifty nonetheless. It’s a great premise – aren’t we all scared of the dark? – and doesn’t require a lot of gaudy effects to pull off.

His Achilles heel here was casting. While Leguizamo and particularly Latimore do solid work, Christensen and Newton overact without any conscience whatsoever. While I agree that frightened people can act in a hysterical manner, there just doesn’t seem to be any reality to their portrayals. It pulled me out of the movie several times. By the way, don’t look for any explanations as to what’s going on – you won’t find any. While there are some critics who complained about it, I think it puts the audience in the place of the characters who wouldn’t have known what’s going on either.

This is a bleak movie, which is a trademark of Anderson. Some may find it too bleak, but I kind of liked the tone. While I appreciate needing to put some name actors in the lead roles, Christensen and Newton aren’t the two I would have cast. With a couple of different actors as Luke and Rosemary, this might have been a much better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Genuinely creepy with good performances from Leguizamo and Latimore.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very bleak in tone. Christensen and Newton were poor choices for the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of swearing and some pretty grim and gruesome imagery.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film was a theatrical flop, more than one quarter of the box office came from South Korea.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a series of interviews conducted by Fangoria magazine.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $10M production budget; not the numbers the producers wanted.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pitch Black

The Last Exorcism


The Last Exorcism

This isn't Kansas anymo...oh yeah it just might be.

(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!