Sunday, September 5, 2010

I'd rather be creeped than scared.

It is my personal belief that there is a distinct difference between the terms “creepy” and “scary”.  In fact, you have to break the words down to their root to get what I am talking about.  To creep is for something to slowly move, often stealthy, and often building intensity.  To scare is to cause a sudden alarm or startled state.  In essence, a scare is a momentary feeling, whereas a creeping feeling builds and lurks for a while.  Many people interchange or use their words incorrectly when referring to the genre of horror in movies.  I hate that.  I really hate that.  Like with a passion.  People should think about what they are saying when they utter, “I’m going to see a scar movie’. 

In fact, I don’t even think that there is such a thing as a scary movie.  There are scary moments within the movie that may startle the shit out of someone, but the movie as a whole is not scary.  There are better adjectives to describe it.   So, to simplify my argument, I must say that there are two main types (amongst others) of horror movies.  There are movies that are a collection of scares or there are creepy movies.  I prefer the creepy movies over the other options.  They resonate more and have a lasting effect.  In fact, they are often the smarter of the movies in that genre.  Creepy movies often are slow burning and build upon the insecurities and fear of the viewer.  Some of the real good ones even manages to incorporate a few scare moment as well.  In essence, they are a complete movie experience.  Rather than momentary fright, you may have an actual emotional response invoked by the story being told.  That, to me, is really freaking awesome when it happens.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing movies that are a collection of scares.  They have entertainment value as well.   However, they aren’t the movies I tell everyone at the office about on a Monday morning.  The creepy ones will usually get a stamp of approval by me with a glowing review to go with it.  I talk about them because they got in my head and got me thinking.  Anyone who knows me knows that I like a good creepin’. 
I’ve seen a lot of horror movies in my time.  Many of them are outright horrible.  Others are decent movies, but very forgettable.  The best of the bunch end up leaving me creeped out by what I saw.   The best of the bunch leaves me with a handful of films that I consider the most fear inducing of all time.  Among them I include The Exorcist, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, The Strangers, Paranormal Activity, Let The Right One In, and The Others.  Each of those movies left me feeling afraid of something for a while and a few of them even gave me some nightmares.  You totally know a movie is creepy when your subconscious is bringing shit up while you are sleeping.

This weekend I added another movie to that list when I saw The Last Exorcism.  To say that the movie was creepy would be one way of putting it.  To say that it rattled my skin and my mind would be a better way of putting it.  It works on several different levels.  On one level it gives you the scares that so many of you are looking for.   On another level it slow burns suspense and fear causing your heart rate to increase as the movie goes on.  It will also have your mind going in several different directions.  In a nutshell, your body will have a physiological and a psychological reaction to this movie.  Perhaps I am biased and have a thing for exorcism movies since I already admitted to liking one such movie and did also enjoy Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.  Then again, that doesn’t make me so much biased, but more as vulnerable to a particular fear stimuli.  I apparently believe in demons.  Who would have guessed?

I am sure you have seen the commercial for The Last Exorcism.  You already know that it is about some girl who is possessed by a demon.  That really is all the previews tell you of the plot while showing you a few moments that intend to frighten you.  The previews do the movie a total disservice and don’t sell you on the rich character development and smart plot.  There is a lot more to it than some girl being possessed.  In fact, you are probably thinking “of course there is.  It is about some priest’s last day on the job”.   That is generally the idea, but a very vague and expedited plot description.  Let me enlighten you without spoiling what makes the movie better than the average horror flick.

First of all, the previews don’t give away that the movie is shot in the “found footage” format much like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity.  The basis of this footage is a documentary made about Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who is a fast talking preacher who does exorcisms on the side to make a little money for his congregation.  He is a man who gives the people what they want to hear and does so effectively because he has a keen ability to keep things interesting.   Cotton knows that he has people eating out of the palm of his hands and even demonstrates it by betting the film makers that he could somehow insert a recipe for banana bread into his sermon.  In so many words, Reverend Marcus is a show man.  In other words, he could be considered a fraud. 

You see, the exorcisms Cotton performs are not exactly what they seem.  He uses smoke and mirrors to give faithful followers the show they were looking for.   People pay him to rid them of demons.  He convinces them that they are gone and never hears from them again.  All people want is to see results.  They change their behavior based on what they see.  Are they possessed?  Reverend Marcus doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and doesn’t believe they are.   It doesn’t matter to him.  It just matters to the people he helps.  The whole idea of exorcisms is a farce in Cotton’s eyes and that is why he has decided he is going to do one more in order to show the world just that fact.

You are probably asking yourself why he would trick so many people and then just change his mind.  That is a good question.  Cotton explains himself when referring to the Vatican’s opening of an Exorcism school.  The idea of them is growing and that worries him because the process can be dangerous when involving children.   He even points to an article where a child had recently died during an exorcism.  If he can change the world’s views on the concept, then he could save some people from being hurt.  So, there you have an idea of the movie’s flawed protagonist.  Reverend Cotton Marcus is well intentioned, even if he does mislead many people in the process.

Cotton’s last job takes him to the Lousiana farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) who wrote the good reverend about his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), who he thinks is possessed to the point where she murders livestock during the night.   We follow Cotton has he does his fraudulent exorcism and promptly leaves like he always does.   The only problem is that this time is different for him.  The problems don’t stop and he ends up right back at the Sweetzer house performing a more thorough and seemingly real exorcism.

The Last Exorcism crafts the “possession” of Nell in an intelligent manner.  We witness a lot of strange behavior and even experience some scares with it.  However, as weird as things are, they could theoretically be explained psychologically.   As things go on, a mystery starts to develop as to why Nell is possessed or psychologically disturbed.  Regardless of which rationale you believe, you start to see it develop as pieces of the puzzle fall into place.  It is legitimately thrilling as the movie moves on and we get closer to a resolution.  There is a twist there the end that makes you think you have it all understood.  However, you don’t.  You’ll be fooled and you’ll love every moment of it.  The classic science versus faith idea is presented, but not in an obvious way.   As views we don’t know if Nell is really possessed and neither does Cotton.  He has a crisis of faith because he may be forced to believe in something he had been faking for many years. 

People who won’t see the movie will most likely assume that it is a rehash of every exorcism movie they have ever seen.  The beauty of The Last Exorcism is that it doesn’t borrow or mimic the obvious moments from movies like The Exorcist.  Sure there are similarities in how the “possessed” Nell behaves, but in general they are presented uniquely.   In other words, the possessed behaviors are presented in a realistic manner with minimal, if none at all, special effects.  The handheld shooting of the “found footage” enhances the creepy nature of these behaviors.  It feels like it could be real. 

The realistic feel of the movie helped me get more invested in the characters.  You want to see Nell rid herself of her demons, whether they be literal or metaphorical.  The interesting thing is that I started to root for Cotton Marcus, even though he is essentially a crooked con man.   Patrick Fabian’s performance and the writing of his character show that despite deceiving people, he does legitimately care about them.  He does want to help.  If he didn’t care the movie would have been a half hour long and he would have counted his money as he drive away.  Instead we are treated to a complex character that makes the movie work so much better than most horror films ever will. 

I also need to give credit to Ashley Bell for her performance as Nell.   She is absolutely polarizing as a innocent god loving teenager one moment and a messenger of Satan the next.  I could be convinced that she was actually possessed for a good portion of the movie.  Although she is convincing, it never strays into the realm of too obnoxious or absurd.  Bell keeps it in check and that sells the creepiness.

Yes, I do suggest this movie.  It has the scares for those of you who enjoy slasher films.  It is creepy for those of you who don’t mind some messed up dreams.  There is also a good psychological thriller mixed in as well.  The Last Exorcism may be the best horror movie of 2010.  I can’t think of anything else that will compete with it.  Hell, I will even go as far to say that it is one of the best character studies you will see this year as well.  Is it chopped full of scares?  No.  Is it a slow burning heart racer?  Yeah, that is more like it.  Is it a thinking man’s movie?  Only if you allow I to be such a movie.  I did and it reminded me why I love creepy movies.

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