Marred only by an unwieldy title and a final act lapse into melodrama, Manuel Carballo’s UK-set chiller is an often compelling retread of ‘The Exorcist’ that benefits from an excellent performance by Sophie Vavasseur as the eponymous Emma. A 15-year-old prone to mood swings, Emma is resentful of her well-meaning but overbearing parents’ insistence on home-schooling her. After a row over whether she can attend a concert with some friends, Emma has some kind of fit. At hospital, a barrage of tests return negative. Parents John (Richard Felix) and Lucy (Jo-Anne Stockham) are perplexed. Lucy’s brother Christopher (Stephen Billington), a Catholic priest, visits her and promises, “God will not let anything bad happen to you.”
Carballo spends the first third of ‘Exorcismus’ (yes, I know it’s the Latin word for “exorcism” but it’s still a piss-awful title) establishing the dynamics of the family – the frosty relationship between John and Lucy, the favouritism exhibited to their younger child, Lucy’s lapsed Catholicism compared to the strength of her brother’s faith, and Christopher’s discrediting over his part in a failed exorcism – as well as probing Emma’s troubled state of mind: self-harm, recreational drug use, a sexual attraction to her worldly-wise cousin Alex (Tommy Bastow).
Emma’s behaviour grows unpredictable: she alienates friends, terrifies her brother and can’t remember anything of what’s happened at the end of each successive episode. Her parents insist on a psychologist. When said individual keels over from a heart attack after trying to hypnotize Emma, she realizes that something is very wrong and reaches out to Christopher for help. Despite John and Lucy’s initial antipathy, he arranges to carry out an exorcism, stipulating that he must record the proceedings for evidence since he’s acting without the permission of the diocese.
At this point, I groaned inwardly at the prospect of yet another low-budget “found footage” horror movie. Mercifully, very little of Christopher’s camcorder footage is featured, and what little appears on screen does so in the furtherance of a real kicker of a twist. ‘Exorcismus’, scripted by David Muñoz (writer of del Toro’s ‘The Devil’s Backbone’), achieves an audacious sleight of hand, suckering its audience by dint of familiarity with ‘The Exorcist’. The story beats follow the expected pattern: teenage girl (check) from an affluent family (check) who has dabbled with a ouija board (check) and starts acting out of character (check), as well as levitating (check) and projectile vomiting (check) but which she’s subjected to medical tests (check) and hypnosis (check) the doctors to draw a blank (check) and it’s left to a priest with a chequered past (check) to officiate at an exorcism (check). There’s even a scene where Christopher admits that he’s been over-confident in thinking he can tackle the demon by himself and sends word to his elder and mentor Monsignor Ennis (Douglas Bradley) to assist him.
I’d already pegged ‘Exorcismus’ as utterly derivative (albeit intelligently handled) and greeted this narrative development with a certain salacious curiosity: Pinhead himself on the side of the angels, wielding a crucifix and casting out demons. I cracked open another beer and settled back for the grand finale. Then Carballo and Muñoz sent a curveball arcing my way. In a film that carries no hint of a twist in the tale – and could have followed its anticipated course and still been effective – it makes a sudden divergence from audience expectations, resulting in a switcheroo that, conceptually at least, is a hell of a lot better than the rug-pull of, say, ‘The Last Exorcism’.
I say “conceptually” because the execution is a tad clumsy. Nonetheless, the territory into which Carballo steers the last act is bold, challenging (perhaps, to some, infuriating) and ballsy. He’s aided by a cool quasi-documentary aesthetic that breaks out the SFX work only very sparingly. Vavasseur, just 18 at the time of filming, is pitch perfect, conjuring teenage angst and demonic persecution with equal conviction. The early scenes of her possession, the actress suggesting just through her eyes and her vocal inflections the awakening of something dark and evil and centuries old within her, are properly unsettling – proof that viscera and geysers of crimson will always be secondary to character, context and narrative development when it comes to creeping out your audience.