The Devil Made Me Film It!
After The Exorcist came out in 1973, there was a “documentary” that PBS would run from time to time that featured a post-exorcized young man discussing how Satan had stumbled into his life. “At midnight, I looked into a mirror and said aloud three times, ‘Satan, come to me.’” And that’s what Satan did. Even though this testimony is just a variation on the “Bloody Mary” ritual performed at countless slumber parties of yore, I still believe that guy’s devil story. If you think you don’t, go try it tonight in your bathroom. Sure, the horned one probably won’t materialize on your bath mat. But over the next week you might start noticing a change: irrational anger, brooding irritability, an inexplicable desire to break a drive-thru window over a botched McNuggets order. Before you know it, a team of orderlies are holding you down cramming you full of Thorazine; or alternately, a team of farmhands are holding you down while Brother Zachariah dowses you with Holy Creek Water.
What will The Last Exorcism add to the “faux documentary real” game? Again, I probably won’t see it, what with the threat of even more Satanic contamination of my soul at stake, but from the ad campaign the film’s strategy seems pretty clear: use the mediating device of a documentary video crew to re-enchant our now jaded response to the proliferation of CGI “magic.” In other words, by capturing the Charcot-on-steroids iconography of devil manipulation through a putatively “low tech” camera, the film looks to distract us from the fact that almost all movie images, no matter how “spectacular,” and are also now equally unimpressive. While Paranormal Activity did this in true low-budget style, assuming (correctly) that mysterious sheet disturbances filmed in low lighting would elicit a creepy response, The Last Exorcism appears to take the more paradoxical approach of disguising rather expensive effects-work behind the illusion that no one had time to get to a Pro Tools station before we get to see the devil’s chiropractor subject this poor girl to a series of very painful adjustments.
This is why, from Stroszek (1977) to Grizzly Man (2005), we may one day look back to Werner Herzog as the most significant filmmaker of the past half-century, all because he had enough sense to get out of the fiction game (mostly) before it became completely dead. The only true horror films to be made in the future will be artfully edited compilations of tapes taken from someone who really believed he had a ghost in his house, a devil in his soul, or a weird alien living at the edge of his property line. Without someone somewhere actually making me believe that they believed it was real, what's the point?