The Last Exorcism film poster (2010). Image Source: Wiki.
I recently saw a mockumentary horror flick, The Last Exorcism (2010), about a disenchanted exorcist who agrees to take part in one last exorcism, while bringing along a documentary crew to expose the ritual as a fraud. This film employs the usual tropes of Catholic exorcist and devil movies; the only novelty is the heavy irony about reality, typical of Millennial perspectives. The film's acting says this isn't real over and over, indicated by the actors ending every sentence on a sing-song, upward note. There are some scary bits, but they're overwhelmed by docu-gimmicks. The film also employed the 'found footage' motif and viral marketing. Strike Entertainment and Studio Canal used the chat site Chatroulette to market the film (see Chatroulette reviewed here, here and here). It presented site users with a girl starting to undress, then becoming possessed (see below). This marketing ploy twists a potential audience's virtual realities, which are now the unsettling standard of their actual realities.
The Last Exorcism advert on Chatroulette. Video Source: Youtube.
Video Source: Youtube.
You can only watch a movie that toys with its own consciousness of non-real reality - and its awareness of its own advertising - so much before that game becomes unsettling in and of itself. In the end, I found the film's ironic play on reality to be more creepy than the girl-frothing-at-the-mouth subject matter. Where's the shock of contrasting reality and unreality, when reality is already under such strain?
The Last Exorcism trailer (2010) Lionsgate/Studio Canal/Strike Entertainment. Video Source: Youtube.
A strong grasp of reality was always the anchor that made a good horror film work. Horror movies attack religious scepticism by making frightening events 'prove' the existence of the unknowable and unprovable. In Old School films like The Haunting (1963) (see my post on it here), there was only one layer of scepticism that had to be stripped away inside the story. Ever since Blair Witch (1999; I've blogged about it here), reality and its antithesis are increasingly layered. Films (like Saw (2004)) keep pushing past previous barriers of acceptable horror - while others (e.g. Paranormal Activity (2007)) fictionally appropriate more reference points normally reserved for non-fiction.
For a horror film to work these days, it has to strip away the characters' scepticism inside the story; then it has to remove our scepticism about horror movies (how many exorcism films have we seen by now?); then it has to erase our scepticism about its packaging and advertising; and finally, it has to remove our scepticism about the paranormal.
On top of this, the only tool that can anchor this process, our perception of reality itself, is in question. With every passing day, the stability of reality is more deeply questioned in pop culture. Film-makers are dealing with an audience that is already jaded and cynical about reality, due to the explosion of the Internet. There is no normal, everyday level of sanity to which the film can return viewers once the scares are over. There's almost no baseline, no foundation, left. The result? An evident, growing vacuum behind a medieval costumed pantomime.
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