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Debating the “Last Exorcism” Ending (Spoilers)

Debating the "Last Exorcism" Ending (Spoilers)

I’ll admit right away that I haven’t seen “The Last Exorcism,” this past weekend’s most lucrative yet not necessarily most popular movie. As a commenter astutely pointed out recently, I’m not “built for the horror genre” but I periodically view some horror films “out of some morbid fascination.” This is true, I guess, though I’ve also been too busy to make time for the film despite a minor interest built up from colleague’s recommendations. Anyway I thought it was enough that I’d watched the latest from horror filmmaker Neil Marshall — “Centurion,” which isn’t scary so much as bloody — and honestly if there’s any kind of horror movie I like least it’s the religious/exorcism variety.

I do know about the ending, having read the entire plot synopsis online. Over the weekend a number of articles popped up addressing the ending, and curiosity and impatience got the best of me and I just had to spoil the thing for myself in order to know what people are talking about. Now I’m more interested in actually seeing it. Partly because to me the “tacked on” end sounds morbidly fascinating. Also, in word form I don’t see much reason for controversy. So I may need the context of the actual movie to understand why the end is ruffling so many feathers. Is it really Shyamalanesque? Or is it a perfectly suited finish to the narrative?

From what I can tell from my currently limited perspective, I would/will probably like the ending. Or at least tolerate it. This isn’t surprising, as I’m also one of the few people who loves the ending of Spielberg’s “A.I.” I also can’t think of any film for which an ending completely ruined the rest of the movie for me. But I am also frankly pretty tired of this whole found-footage, everyone has died and this is the document kind of horror movie, which does often feel like a cop out. There are other ways to have an open-ended denouement or even a closed conclusion that still allows for discussion/debate. “The Last Exorcism” could have simply ended with its homage to “Rosemary’s Baby” without also going the “Blair Witch Project” route and still had the most ripe-for-discussion ending since “Inception.”

In addition to the debates about whether or not the girl was really possess and whether or not the ending is a disappointment, I’m very much into the argument about whether or not critics should be so forgiving of a movie when they hate its ending so much. I understand the importance of judging a movie in its entirety and arguing for whether or not it works as a whole, but I also have this belief that films are greatest when you can approach them at any moment and when you can still enjoy them with any one scene removed. I like to think about a movie with its last scene lopped off in particular. Many movies are better without their final bits yet not worse for having them.

Let’s see what others around the web are saying about the film’s ending:

Eugene Novikov at Cinematical:

I agree that the ending wreaks havoc on the film’s themes. Ultimately it’s not clear what the movie wants to say about the way religious thinking makes people easy pray for hucksters and scam artists. In this sense, I much prefer The Last Exorcism’s first twist ending — the one that makes Cotton’s camera crew turn around and head back to the Sweetzer homestead. I’m also not sure the movie ultimately makes sense — what parts of Nell’s possession were real, and what parts were her attempt to get herself rescued? I don’t think it’s possible to answer that question.

John Young at EW’s PopWatch:

The last thing The Last Exorcism needed was a tacked-on denouement that tidied up the plot. I was worried the movie was going in that direction as Cotton was driving away, convinced that Nell was just a teenage girl in need of serious psychotherapy. But then he turned around and, in the span of five minutes, we got Satanic pentagrams, spicy demon babies, religious cults, and more splicing and dicing than you find in a typical infomercial. I left a satisfied customer.

Vic Holtreman at Screen Rant:

Of course the question the audience is left with is: Was Nell really possessed or was it all an elaborate psychological issue? Well here’s the problem… there were different points of view about what was really happening between those involved in the film, so it’s going to be (mostly) open to interpretation by the audience. The idea behind the film (up until the final scenes) was to present everything that happened in as neutral a way as possible, so that two people could look at the same movie and one would say it was possession while the other would say it’s psychological.

However the ending, while apparently meant to also be ambiguous or open-ended, obviously leans toward the demonic possession side of the equation. The birth of a child/creature that is clearly alive although Nell is so early in her pregnancy that it’s not even remotely apparent that she’s pregnant points to it being non-human. There have also been descriptions from those involved in the film that the “baby” had “spikes” protruding from it – obviously not a super-early term embryo/fetus/baby. Finally the massive expansion of the fire when the creature is thrown into it – all these things point to a supernatural occurrence – which was NOT the intention of the filmmakers.

Robert Fure at Film School Rejects, complaining about the forced narrative structure of faux documentaries:

I would be very, very impressed if a movie made the bold choice of obeying the rules of a documentary. Hollywood loves the shock ending, though, so I doubt they ever will. I mean, think about it Bigfoot were real. You wouldn’t cut together some laughs, some searching, some crying, and then at the end show a ten second clip of Bigfoot. You’d take all that footage and create a story about finding Bigfoot, not some meandering journey.

Agent Bedhead at Pajiba:

The Last Exorcism is not really “found footage” but, in fact, a nearly completed documentary. To explain any further would breach spoiler territory other than to state that the polish factor is pretty damn high and, at a certain point, an interruption occurred in the planned documentary process. What takes place might appear inconceivable, but that’s part of the plan here because we see the entire story from the point of view of Cotton, who essentially loses control over a situation that he’s been rehearsing for his entire life. Some might not be comfortable with this lack of predictability, but any other ending would be inconsistent with the main character’s identity. […] Anyone who expects a traditional resolution to Cotton Marcus’ story — some sort of clear victory or loss — will likely declare the ending to be “stupid” and sound just as unaware and cocksure as Cotton himself.

Annalee Newitz at io9:

I thought the movie’s ending, where Cotton and the filmmakers stumble into a Satanic ritual, was ambiguous. Though a lot of people said, “OK, it really is Satan at work here,” I thought you could still read the final scene as a bunch of crazy people. We’ve already seen how much showmanship goes into an exorcism, so I figured the minister could have been doing what Cotton had done earlier, using chemicals to make the fire leap really high. He could even have induced a miscarriage in poor Nell to create the “demon baby” illusion. So I asked Stamm if it was intentionally ambiguous or not. He felt that the ending was ambiguous, but for very different reasons than I did. He was certain, in the end, that Satan was truly involved. The ambiguity for him was Cotton’s rekindled faith.

If you have an opinion on the ending of “The Last Exorcism” chime in with a comment or link us to your own blog post about it. I’ll update this posting with more quotes as or if they come to me.

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