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Beat the Devil: The Last Exorcism and Centurion

Cheap thrills are hard to find.

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After seeing The Last Exorcism, I went home and wrote this "Open Letter to Eli Roth," the movie's producer:

"Dear Eli: I wanted to like The Last Exorcism. I really did. The poster art is terrific, even though it's a bit like putting the money shot in the trailer. You're giving the customers your best merchandise for free. I'm talking about the poster showing Ashley Bell, as the haunted teenager Nell, bent double backward like some sort of crazed Beijing acrobat, with the key difference that the photo is antiqued and the young woman is wearing an old-fashioned dress. A scary supernatural freak show with Victorian overtones of The Elephant Man, huh?

"So, from the advertising, I was looking forward to something a little gothic and frightening and out of the ordinary. And the film takes positive steps in all those directions. But it comes up slightly short, to tell you the truth, Eli. You know the part I mean. What happened?

"I have to admire your William Castle-style disclaimer, though, where you come on screen before the movie starts, address the audience, and ask them to help you market the film with word-of-mouth. As if it weren't already being distributed by the mighty Lionsgate with an apparently adequate ad budget. Pretty canny, making a personal appeal. Go on Twitter and join the Twittics. That's so nakedly crass, it's remarkable. Anyway, thanks for an entertaining 87 minutes. I'm glad you're one of the few that can get in, tell a story, and get out in less than ninety minutes. Best wishes."

Now that we've sent Mr. Roth his message and we're alone and can talk frankly, it's time to mention a few things that were left out of the open letter. But we're going to have to tiptoe around some of them to avoid spoiling the movie.

Blond-haired, innocent-faced Ms. Bell is particularly good as Nell, the Linda Blair substitute, but so is Patrick Fabian in the much trickier part of preacher/hustler and door-to-door exorcism salesman Cotton Marcus. Former schoolboy faith healer Cotton, who learned his trade from his Bible-thumping father, specializes in "saving" gullible Southern church-goers and has a car trunk full of props and sound effects to add drama to his thriving demon-removal practice. When he's called to the rural Louisiana home of the religious Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) and Sweetzer's possessed sixteen-year-old daughter Nell, we're already primed to see the devious Cotton get his head torn off.

But that doesn't happen. In fact, director Daniel Stamm and his screenwriters, Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, studiously keep a lid on the proceedings, only letting short puffs of steam escape as the tension mounts. Nell's openly hostile brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) is pretty weird, and so is their borderline-hysterical father, and there are mutilated animals in the barn and deep male voices coming from Nell's room in the middle of the night. Also, Nell's bare feet cause a footbath to boil, and where did all that blood on the sheets come from? Other than that it's pretty quiet out at the Sweetzer place.

The biggest suspense-killer in the film is the video-crew device, with Reverend Cotton, who's "making a documentary" about himself, always in voiceover with a camera operator and sound technician tagging along wherever he goes. Chalk that up to The Blair Witch Project. Whenever a low-budget film wants to create maximum jitters cheaply, the "let's make a video" device is the default — it's been overworked, folks.

In the 37 years since William Friedkin scared the bejesus out of America with the original The Exorcist, horror filmmakers have tried every possible variation on the theme, but Friedkin's combo of camera placement, visual effects, good actors, and spooky sound engineering remains the gold standard in this particular subgenre. Blair Witch worked exceedingly well the first time out, and occasionally someone puts just the right touch on its brand of handheld nervousness (see this summer's [REC] 2), but in The Last Exorcism the device is mostly a time-waster. Someone screams, Cotton and the video crew race to the appropriate room in the farmhouse, and then something mildly frightening happens. Repeat. This has the effect of building anticipation for the ending, and unfortunately the ending is a little weak.

Horror enthusiasts, of course, all know who Eli Roth is. The writer-producer-director-actor, an NYU film school grad, hit it big with the teen guignol item Cabin Fever and 2001 Maniacs, and later hooked up with Quentin Tarantino for Grindhouse, but he's most notorious for the Hostel series. That would-be franchise — the subject of disparaging editorials — took a radical detour off the splatter trail by presenting the spectacle of nubile young women tourists, blithely flouncing through Europe, getting kidnapped and tortured by decadent Euro-trash for the sheer sport of it. The Last Exorcism, alas, never achieves that level of repulsiveness.

Audiences emerging in bewilderment from The Last Exorcism, desperately seeking the cheap thrills that movie lacks, are warned not to blindly buy a ticket to Neil Marshall's sword-and-wolfskin historical actioner Centurion.

Evidently seeking to retrace the ground trodden by Gladiator, Braveheart, and similar violent costumers, writer-director Marshall's (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) scenario takes us back to the year 117 CE, when a legion of Roman soldiers is testing the furthest boundaries of its empire by fighting the fierce Picts in the highlands along what is now the English-Scots border. Great balls of fire, flying arrows, eye-gouging, decapitation, copious blood, overacting. The main sounds are men and women — one of the nastiest Picts is a female named Etain, played by Olga Kurylenko — yelling "Aaarrrrgghhh!" and the swissssshhhh! of blades being pulled out of scabbards and the bodies of dead enemies.

Questions arise. When exactly was eye makeup invented? Why do screenwriters still, after Life of Brian, give Roman characters names like Virilus? (He has a cousin, you know. Contagius Virus.) Why is it that the Picts speak their own language (it's really Scots Gaelic, according to the press notes) but the Romans never speak Latin, only English? What are those wolves doing out in the daytime? By the time the heroic Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) settles down with the nice witch Arianne (Imogen Poots) in that little cottage in the glen, we've processed enough sliced meat to open a chain of delis.

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