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The Last Exorcism Nell

The scare factor is multiplied by the number of Doc Martens worn

Dear Readers,

It’s no secret that Oscar week is officially upon us. Hollywood is fluttering with news of last minute award predictions, fashion, and gossip. Will Argo win Best Picture despite the seeming injustice of Ben Affleck being denied nominations for Best Actor and/or Director? Will Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt make another show stopping appearance? Which designers will have the most dresses on the red carpet? All big, important and possibly life-altering questions, however, despite this, right now I am not concerned with any of them (at least today). I’ve got more pressing cinematic matters on my mind.

Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly by now) I’m actually more interested in the impending release of The Last Exorcism Part II, whose March 1 US release date is looming upon us like the very devil the original Eli Roth produced gem was fighting to exorcise. As I wrote in my review of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest production project Mama, I am always interested in the implications of big name directors investing their creative energies, names, and most importantly, money; into smaller projects for the sake of the growth of cinema as both art and artifice. With Mama Del Toro’s influence was everywhere. From the whimsical cinematography and fairy tale mythology to the design and shape of the ghosts, the inexperienced Andres Muschietti was carried and nurtured by a true auteur who acted behind the scenes as both guardian and inspiration, and that is truly admirable.

When I found out/was reminded (actually by seeing the trailer in my screening of the aforementioned Mama) that Eli Roth’s 2010 production project, The Last Exorcism, was due for a sequel and soon, I was immediately intrigued and delighted. It goes without saying that all of us who write about film (and music) are not without our biases and favourites when it comes to directors, narrative style, and genre. I tend to favour horror and drama over other genres and that’s clearly documented in what I’ve written here at The Monolith, as is my affinity for major cinematic projects over indie ones.

This being said, I love Roth’s work, and it has served me well. I wrote my MA thesis on Hostel and cited The Last Exorcism too when I was talking about the sexualization of demonic possession as it appears in cinema. I remember seeing the original film at the midnight screening with one of my friends and being amazed when the issue of possible possession was tied to both sexual trauma and PTSD directly stemming from rape. The central protagonist of Nell was complex and although I would have loved more discussion of gender, it’s undeniable that in a possession narrative, gender is everywhere. It is an unavoidable and invisible force that drives the story and the ideologies that it runs on, a wrecking ball and a floating Forrest Gump-esque feather (forgive that metaphor).

If head bitch in charge/ master queer theorist Judith Butler told us in Gender Trouble that all gender is a performance, then to me, movies that depict possessions involving young female victims serve as the ultimate stages for a pure look into the central anxieties we all have surrounding sexuality, gender, and women’s agency. We are given an insider view into how gender works, may or may not exist, and is performed in accordance with a variety of societal rules. This is only possible because our possessed girl usually breaks all of them. And how do we see rules? Through the terror and unease we feel when they are broken and the system is exhibits cracks. For instance, Nell talking about giving “blowing jobs,”  shows how much of female sexuality is performance and negotiation with masculine desire, even when one is too young or naive to understand what a “blowing job” could be.

The Last Exorcism was not without its faults, like its dependence on the “found footage” methodology and stereotypes about rural masculinity (namely in Nell’s father and brothers), but overall I think that it was excellent despite these hindrances. Like Del Toro, Roth’s mark was clearly on the film he spent so much time producing and promoting (chiefly through Twitter). We have the sharp critique of institutional forces Roth has become known for (in this case, religion and gender) and a cynically flawed set of characters who are unreliable both as narrators and subjects.

Eli Roth has continued to prove himself as actor, director, producer, and writer and more importantly, he has paid his good fortune forward. As Quentin Tarantino was instrumental in the financing and promotion of Hostel, Roth (and his name) helped The Last Exorcism become a hit. I’m super excited to see the sequel and how the story will evolve, especially now since the found footage model of the original is no longer going to be used, in favour of a more traditional third person cinematic approach. Despite a shift in directors, I’m optimistic that we will again be able to recognize the on point and unapologetic tone synonymous with the work of Eli Roth.

Much like Del Toro is unmistakable in his visual style (and his Catholic symbology), Roth’s biting use of narrative as social commentary has become his watermark. What was explicit in Cabin Fever became more beautifully nuanced in Hostel. Finally in The Last Exorcism we see a subtle, yet consistent undertone of skepticism, loss of faith, and feeling of betrayal in both systems of gender and religion. Whereas William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) constantly bashed us over the head with Catholicism and the virtues of finding one’s way back to the flock (obviously because the author of the original book, William Peter Blatty, was a man of great faith).

Instead, Roth and director Daniel Stamm offered a more complex problem through the injection of sexual assault as a possible explanation for Nell’s strange behaviour. Because, isn’t a sexual assault in of itself a type of possession? A violation of one’s body by another as a testament to the most daring reaches of power? I would agree this is most definitely the case, and because of that this is not simply another throwaway moment in a horror film. It is not yet another movie that owes everything to The Exorcist or even something more recent like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). The Last Exorcism combined some of our darkest suspicions about sexuality and gender into a powerhouse of affect. That should be celebrated.

Soon to be contorting in your local theatre

As we approach the release of the anticipated (by me) sequel, I am filled with hope that the original integrity of the first film will remain even if the sequel leaves much to be desired. Perhaps, depending on the narratives, we could view them as two separate films that work together in the same cinematic universe, but are not dependent on each other for existence. That’s how I feel about Hostel and its sequel, and that attitude has allowed me to love Hostel and appreciate its second part in ways I didn’t think I could. The trailer for The Last Exorcism Part II leaves me a bit skeptical because it seems to rely on more big budget scare tactics than the understated ones present in the original, but I’ll need to see the film before giving my official statement of the little preview and if it does the film justice.

I suppose all good trailers do this though, they urge us into the cinema just when we thought the nightmare was over (from life, another film’s affective half life, etc.). Through this trailer Roth has tagged us “it.” It’s up to us if we’d like to survey the landscape of our fears and find ourselves in the film and all of its gendered implications. I know, I for one, am excited for the chase.