The Devil Made Me Film It!

A new devil movie comes out today, The Last Exorcism, which should be cause for great rejoicing among those hoping to genuinely frighten themselves at the cinema.  Will it be any good?  It doesn’t really matter in that Satan flicks remain the one genre where, in the back of even the most soberly materialist mind, the real terror resides in a suspicion that one might land in some form of supernatural trouble just through the act of watching the movie—be it good or bad.  The act of self-selecting to see a devil movie in the first place is to tempt damnation.  For example, it’s easy enough to watch a vampire movie and not worry about encountering a vampire, or more recently, regressing into some form of freakishly celibate teenager.  Even the crappiest devil movie, on the other hand, plays on a few thousand years of guilty superstition that the Dark One might be in the theater with you, in spirit at least, looking to throw a demon into some random idiot (i.e. you) for no other reason than said idiot willingly attended a movie about demonic possession. 

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.

From the ad campaign, it would appear The Last Exorcism is the latest effort by the movie industry to revitalize a classic horror subgenre by mobilizing the “fake documentary real,” a once innovative device that has itself  become somewhat of a “classic” over the past decade or so.   The Blair Witch Project (1999) started this current cycle and remains the undisputed champion.  That film rather brilliantly took advantage of the brief historical moment when the eras of William Castle and the Internet temporarily overlapped, indulging perhaps the last audience in history capable of maintaining any affective investment whatsoever in determining the status of the image.  It was obviously all a fake.  But for those so inclined, conditions were never better to pretend to entertain some degree of dubious conviction, even if one was only pretending to pretend.   (side note: as those with truly despicable taste are well aware, Cannibal Holocaust actually pioneered this conceit way back in 1980 when a producer accidentally happens upon a stack of film canisters left behind in the Amazon rain forest documenting an NYU anthropology team’s slow-roasted date with a rotisserie).

Cloverfield (2008) took a slightly different approach, retooling Godzilla (1956) according to the ADD aesthetic of cyborg-youth thought to so dominate the sensibility of the industry’s primary target market.  The movie was a real vomit-launcher for anyone over the age of, let’s say 35, not so much for the insanely over-vertiginous “real time” camerawork (I know everyone was scared of the Cloverfield thing and all, but the cinematography on that movie looked as if the DP was trying to film everything while a badger burrowed its way out of his stomach), but more for the rather maddening conceit that it is more important to document your pals being shredded by extraterrestrials than it is to simply run like hell in the opposite direction of the screaming.  After all, it’s not like the movie’s plucky 20-somethings needed to document the reality of the situation for posterity.  Every single man, woman, and child in New York City realizes Manhattan is under existential threat from a seriously gruesome space beast.  Before nausea forced me to leave the theater (not snooty critical nausea, but garlic-laced puttanesca + "we have no tripod" nausea), I couldn’t help but wonder if these characters were in the same movie I was watching.

This brings us to Paranormal Activity (2007), which one-upped Spielberg’s Poltergeist (1982) by not only moving the Victorian ghost story into a more banal domicile, but also by matching the banality of haunted nightlife with the banality of home DV technology.  While the film has its highs and lows, this commitment to underwhelming imagery was certainly laudable.  After all, Poltergeist was perhaps the greatest ghost movie of all time UNTIL the unfortunate scene when JoBeth Williams descends the staircase to announce that she just “felt” her daughter Carol Anne’s spirit pass through her—the precise moment, almost to the second, that you can also feel the film passing through Tobe Hooper’s body and back to Spielberg the screenwriter/ “adviser.”  Signaled by Spielberg’s patented strategy of generating fake emotion through a simultaneous dolly-in/tilt-up camera move, we know at that point purely through film style that everyone’s going to get through this unharmed, just like with the truck, shark, and alien movies that came before, and that our dreams of seeing an entire suburban family blasted into ectoplasm will just have to wait.

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.

How many more of these films can be made?  Like any stylistic device, the “faux documentary real” can probably generate a few more titles before completing losing its “power” to suspend belief and/or disbelief (not really sure which applies here).  Unlike the spread of other narrative forms, however, this one seems a bit more inflected by a general panic over the status and future of all narrative cinema.  When every story form is known to the point of exhaustion, and every image technique demystified to the point that any teenager can render 300 on a home computer, how will the “fiction” film maintain any kind of hold?  No doubt the industry will have to continue devising new strategies to convince us that something is at stake on the screen, like when The Break-Up (2006) generated fleeting interest by seeming to reference Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan’s actual collapsing relationship; or more recently, when the pleasures of intensely hating Eat Pray Love (2010) depend on knowing about author Elizabeth Gilbert’s “real world” publishing deal. 

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?

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