The second half of my PG-13 horror week is 2010’s The Last Exorcism directed by Daniel Stamm. A German filmmaker, Stamm directed this and another low budget indie found footage movie before he kind of disappeared in Hollywood. The Last Exorcism‘s success cast Stamm into M. Night Shyamalan’s orbit just as the cinematic universe trend was taking off, setting in motion the now familiar story of the low budget filmmaker suddenly thrown into a massive studio opportunity. In this case, he was to direct “Reincarnate,” a movie that would have formed the middle chapter of “The Night Chronicles” a series that apparently began with Devil, the scary elevator movie also from 2010. Except “Reincarnate” never got off the ground (although also it apparently hasn’t officially been cancelled) and instead Shyamalan had to make a bunch of movies to rehabilitate his own reputation, leaving Stamm to spend last decade plus grinding it out.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Last Exorcism is a found footage mockumentary “filmed” by Iris (Iris Bahr) and Daniel (Adam Grimes) about the wonderfully named Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian from Better Call Saul and also the meme). Marcus has had a crisis of faith and decided to leave the church but before he goes, he wants to expose the practice of fake exorcisms by taking one last request and filming it. By random chance, he picks a letter from Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum from Westworld), a farmer and widower who believes his daughter is possessed by Satan.
When Marcus and the crew make it down to the farm, Sweetzer’s son, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones from a bunch of stuff, he also played a creepy brother in Get Out) tries to scare them off but Marcus is an old pro and undeterred. He has Louis bring them to his daughter, 16-year-old Nell (Ashley Bell), who seems perfectly nice. They find out Nell’s mother had died two years ago and that experience instilled in Louis both a profound faith in god and an equally profound distrust of society, so he now home schools Nell. So already not that great a situation, even both the devil stuff. Nonetheless, Marcus performs his mock exorcism and leaves everyone satisfied and smiling. The only problem is that night Nell mysteriously appears at the motel Marcus and the filmmakers are staying at and acts really, really weird. It seems like Marcus maybe bit off a little more than he can chew this time…
Now that found footage has evolved from a gimmick into a genre, it’s tricky to say what’s a limitation of the medium versus just how it works. Non-diegetic background music, for example, feels necessary to keep the audience interested (and in the case of horror movies like this, in suspense) but also narratively doesn’t really make sense. There’s always the question of how much the subjects should acknowledge the camera (I think this movie handles this very well) and, perhaps more importantly, why people keep filming when shit starts going down (I’m less sold on this). Also there’s the question of how much the “filmmakers” should actually be in the movie: too little and we don’t care about our POV characters, but too much and we start to wonder why these so-called documentarians are constantly getting in the way of the story they’re supposed to be documenting. It’s not as easy as it looks and I think Stamm does a great job here.
So yeah, right, Daniel Stamm. Without Shyamalan’s new franchise to kickstart his career, instead he ended up remaking a Thai horror comedy called 13 Beloved as 13 Sins starring Mark Webber. It was released on VOD before theaters, and this was back in 2014 when that was a bad sign instead of business as usual. He also found a lot of genre work on TV, directing episodes of shows like Scream (the TV series) and Fear the Walking Dead. All this led him back to exorcism, with last year’s hilariously titled Prey for the Devil, a movie even John summarily dismissed. I don’t know, maybe there’s something there? There’s a lot to like about The Last Exorcism at least. One has to wonder what the last 13 years could have looked like for Stamm if it wasn’t the case that in 2010, seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s name made people laugh.