I don't usually review movies I haven't seen. But there's a lot of hype surrounding the release of the new horror movie The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm. You might have seen ads for it and advanced press calling it this year's Paranormal Activity, which, you might remember, was last year's Blair Witch Project. The film claims to include "found footage," and has a home movie feel. Supposedly,we're going to see a real possessed person get purged.
Or are we?
Pseudo-documentaries have reinvigorated the scary movie genre (you might even call them a genre themselves, depending on how finicky you are about naming new categories). They underline what good scary movies are--an appeal to that part of your brain that fears secrecy, disorientation, alienation and a lack of context--and thus makes you most open to manipulators. Did you ever notice that there is very little actual visual and sound information in the Blair Witch Project? That's part of its genius (or its hustle). Whoever made it (or marketed it) knows that your brain was doing all the work and imagining awful things when actually nothing was happening (and I've watched it twice. Really. NOTHING happened). The real geniuses were the guys at Artisan Entertainment (I like to think it was a Don Draper type) who told the filmmakers at the festivals to shut their mouths and not do any more interviews. The mystery was part of the artistry.
When I saw the poster for The Last Exorcism in the subway, I wasn't as horrified by the picture or the gnomic tag line "Believe In Him," as I was by the names on the credits: writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. These two guys are already responsible for one of the best films you've never seen and it's not a horror film at all but a comedy. A sublime comedy called Mail Order Wife, which they directed together. If you haven't seen it (and the current IMDB numbers suggest that you haven't) then I'll give you the best recap I can without too many spoilers. In it, a documentary film crew (with Gurland himself) follows a doorman from Queens as he uses a mail-order bride service to track down and marry the girl of his dreams, a catalog wife from Burma named Lichi (Eugenia Yuan). The doorman (Adrian Martinez) has no social skills and no charm. He turns his new bride first into a maid, then a sex slave. This is all too much for the film crew and Gurland, who gets personally involved with the story (and Lichi).
The first reaction you have watching Mail Order Wife is vile discomfort. Adrian has a crippling lack of social skills and is bereft of elegance. Watching him turn from a schlub into a monster is, in fact, kind of like watching a horror film. But then something happens. The plot turns really bizarre about 30 minutes into it, and we're no longer sure if we're watching a documentary at all. Everybody turns into an asshole, including Lichi and the filmmakers. It's all so funny, though, you stop caring.
It might sound smug or cute or annoying, when a director suddenly suggests he's pulling your chain, but in this case, it's really cool. I have watched this movie three times and it never bores me. Even if it is just a ruse, the behavior of the people on the screen is familiar, and you oddly feel refreshed thinking maybe you've been delivered from the pain of the reality. Real life is always more awkward than fiction. Maybe that's why a well-directed mockumentary can also make you feel disoriented the same way a horror movie can. Maybe the two genres are more related than we think.
Werner Herzog, the German filmmaking genius, has recently had a lot of fun with this idea by delving into mockumentaries that are purported at first to be real. Herzog, who has admitted that a lot of his '70s "histories" were made up, likes to remind the audience that they are the ones doing a lot of the work of narrative. The filmmaker is just laying the tracks.
The first time I saw The Blair Witch Project, I was dating a very brainy woman with an advanced degree, the kind of person unlikely to get fished into a dead camper yarn. And yet she went for the movie like catnip. The funniest thing to me was that she was too afraid to even look at the screen most of the time and instead looked down into her lap. In other words, she didn't see the Blair Witch Project, at all. She only heard it. What did that do? It made her even more frightened. Having less information made it more effective.
I have high hopes for The Last Exorcism because it might have more in common with Mail Order Wife than the names on the poster. It's shrouded in mystery, for one thing. The filmmakers will say very little about the story and critics are playing along. The producers have already started a brilliant ad campaign that has their minions going into demonic spasms on Chat Roulette.
I don't necessarily want Botko and Gurland to launch a new horror film career. I would prefer they make me laugh. Instead I secretly hope this movie continues the career they already started of movie deconstruction. Something that will shake up viewers who have become numb watching Snooki and The Situation fall into alcohol blackout and somehow accept it as reality. In other words, I do hope there is a real exorcism going on in The Last Exorcism--and that it's the audience that's getting it.