Told you there would be more.
If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you know how this works. If you haven’t, this is how this works:
Rating on the four-star scale (five-star scales are for noncommittal hacks)
We’re going to do away with the SPOILERy thoughts section of previous reviews. Keeps things leaner and more professional.
OK, we’re off.
I know I’m a bit late to the party with these two reviews but, in the event you’re still on the fence, maybe the opinion of one of your own will help you decide. Plus, I think these two films represent an interesting dichotomy in modern horror, so there’s that, too.
Let me say from the get-go, I am not a big Eli Roth fan. I think the Hostels are little more than exercises in sadism and I can’t help but think Roth made them so he could masturbate to the dailies. So, his name, and the rather Hostely, Sawish poster up there did not give me great hope I’d want anything to do with The Last Exorcism. Not only was I wrong, I was 180 degrees wrong. This is basically the anti-Hostel. An actual story, actual characters, and virtually no gore.
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian; excellent and out of nowhere) was born for this. The son of a successful Southern preacher, Cotton has spent his life making people feel better than they did when they entered his church…and making sure they left as much of their money behind as possible when they go. Over the years, Cotton has also taken up the family practice of performing exorcisms to the same great success.
Except, exorcisms are bullshit. And Cotton knows it.
So, with a camera crew in tow, Cotton resolves to perform one last exorcism during which he will divulge all the tricks of the trade. He picks a victim, er, client at random from all the many letters he gets asking for his help, and sets off into deep, rural Louisiana determined to wash his hands (and his conscience?) of the whole affair, once and for all.
That’s the premise. You can assume it doesn’t go very well from there.
Cotton’s client, farmer Louis Sweetzer, is a true believer. He truly believes his pure-as-the-driven-manure daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon and he’s got the dead livestock to prove it. After a tertiary, but flamboyant, examination, Cotton not only determines Nell is, in fact, occupado, he also knows which demon it is and shows Louis the appropriate entry in his Necromonicon-looking Who’s Who in the Demonverse. Not to worry though, Cotton has all the necessary equipment and bravado needed to bounce the demon out of Nell and save the day, which he does. Everyone happy? Everyone paid? Awesome.
But then a bewildered, drooling Nell appears in Cotton’s motel room, miles from her farm.
I won’t go any further into the plot as I’ve seen some other reviews do. Suffice to say Nell’s appearance at Cotton’s motel is just the beginning of the story. Before it’s over, Cotton and his crew will form several theories as to what’s really going on with Nell as they try desperately to keep her from hurting herself…or anyone else. Add Nell’s puritanical father and squirrely brother (Caleb Landry Jones) to the mix and the good preacher and his documenters are never in as much control of the situation as they might like…or might believe.
The Last Exorcism is another in a growing series of horror movies (The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Quarantine) to use the You Are There, mockumentary style to tell its tale. I have to say, I think it works really well here (unlike in Cloverfield, where the dude would have dropped the camera in the first reel). The filmmakers in the story are there for the specific purpose of documenting Cotton’s exorcism of Nell’s demon so, as things escalate and unravel, it makes sense to me the camera would keep rolling. Plus, and needless to say, the camera’s movements get quicker and more frantic as things proceed, but it never felt chaotic or overly frazzled for the sake of creating a feeling of panic, something Quarantine embraced, particularly toward its climax.
A story about exorcisms and demons falls completely flat if the actors don’t put the concepts over as legit. Fortunately, the entire cast acquits itself nicely with Fabian and Bell standing out. The jittery camera helps Bell in some of her most histrionic moments, but the performance is there, purportedly without aid of make-up effects or CGI.
Which brings me to my favorite aspect of The Last Exorcism, the almost total lack of gore. This is a movie that creates an air of dread, and manages to scare (I have to admit, I OMG’d a few times) without any splattering blood or smeared uterus. It also doesn’t rely at all heavily on JUMP scares; the horror comes from the situation, the atmosphere, and what might be.
The Last Exorcism has received some critical acclaim, but I’ve heard many audience members leave in anger. Indeed, I thought the film’s ending was a let-down on the night, but have come to appreciate it more and more as time’s passed because, once you accept and absorb it, it does fit into, and is informed by, the balance of the film. If you’re looking for Rothian schlock, look elsewhere; The Last Exorcism is a smart, reasonably clever journey. Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t.
Or, if you are, in fact, a blood-craving lackwit, you could see…
If The Last Exorcism is the thinking man’s, or at least the nose-breathing man’s, horror film, Piranha 3-D is for the sort of detached, desensitized Millennial who made the Hostels such a success (and, indeed, that pesky Eli Roth cameos). An in-name-and-basic-concept only remake of Joe Dante’s 1981 Corman-powered B, Piranha 3-D tells the story, or shows the results of, well, piranha, prehistoric in this case, unleashed from an underground lake in Arizona, rending the tender flesh of dozens (hundreds?), of jiggly, spring-breaking co-eds. That’s it. But that’s all there really needs to be, no?
You will see flesh hanging from bone. You will see bones stripped of flesh. You will see skull stripped of face. You will see a floating penis maimed and regurgitated.
Need a minute?
And you will see old pros like Elizabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, and Christopher Lloyd cash paychecks while providing the only real fun for be had here with their poker-faced earnestness. Saw vet Dina Meyer is in it, too. See if you can find her. I had to consult IMDB.
The rest of the cast consists of some fresh-faced newbie kid heroes, an endless supply of dopey dudes and soft bikini girls who exist only writhe to the phat beats and be horribly killed, and the piranha themselves, whom I have to conclude are the real stars as the movie has no sympathy for, or rooting interest in, any of the humans on screen. And neither will you.
And that’s the problem.
Director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, the 2006 The Hills Have Eyes) has such obvious contempt for anything on two legs, the audience finds itself with no one for whom to root or fear. I saw the movie with a buddy of mine who wasn’t quite ready for the callus tone and was left saying something like, "yeah, I mean, they’re all douchey spring-breakers but…they’re still human beings."
Not in this movie. Indeed, there’s an almost fetishistic sadism to the way the piranhas’ victims, particularly the woman, are dispatched with a bloody dispassion that would make Jason Vorhees shed a tear. The girls of Piranha 3-D die horribly and screaming, often with their bare breasts flopping in the ever-reddening water.
If this were all done with a cartoony sense of It’s Just A Movie, Folks fun, I wouldn’t have much of an issue with this Piranha, but director Aja often pauses for just a second so we can see the genuine terror or anguish his victims endure. One girl slowly sinks silently to her knees following a fatal slash across her bare lower belly by, not one of the frenzied fish, but a thick, whipping electrical cable. Aja’s camera holds on her just long enough for us to see her realize what’s happened to her before the blood comes.
That’s not fun.
Piranha 3-D is at its sleazy, trashy best when Sheriff Shue and company are trying to figure out just what the heck’s going on here. Apart from that, it’s just sleazy, and sadistic, trash.
Eli gets to have it both ways.
-JJJ (is on Twitter)
The Last Exorcism * * *
Piranha 3-D * *