THE LAST RITE
Directed by Leroy Kincaide
Leroy Kincaide has had a heck of a life: undertaker turned professional wrestler turned filmmaker. This year the writer/ director has the honour of doing a prestigious FrightFest First Blood premiere, marking him as one to watch. His debut offering is The Last Rite: a supernatural horror allegedly based upon his own experiences. We follow Lucy – a medical student who has recently moved in with her boyfriend, Ben. Everything seems to be going fine, at least when he’s not under stress from work. That is until she finds herself plagued by a demonic entity. It starts just out the corner of her eyes – a sinister shape, with what looks like a hat, that torments her. Ben doesn’t believe her, putting it down to normal night terrors which are all in her head. But as things get worse, she reckons with her strict religious upbringing and turns to a higher power.
This probably sounds familiar. While The Last Rite is by no means a bad movie, it’s a relatively pedestrian one. The scares are very much of the face in the mirror/ drawers opening/ birds hitting the window variety for the first half. No, we never quite reach the fridge door closing moment or a child doing a fucked-up drawing, but if one were playing trope bingo, they’d get a line or two. The repeated line, ‘don’t let him in’, even sounds like something from a dozen other supernatural horrors. To be fair, it’s all very competently done, though. Kincaide knows how to stage, skilfully keeping the threat offscreen. The soundtrack is also way less invasive and far more subtle than the loud strings these films typically use. The pacing is well-executed, and a couple of moments in the first act got me, though rarely did The Last Rite surprise me. Fundamentally it feels a lot like other movies.
I suspect there’s a double standard here since slasher films tend to get lauded for sticking rigorously to a template – indeed, some of the more subversive ones are hated. Yet, they are seldom meant to be scary and tend not to rely on mood in the same way. They favour money shots and killing off annoying characters over prolonged ‘don’t go in there!’ suspense. It’s hard for films with a cast this small to escalate the threat, too, since we know nothing is likely to happen to the leads for a while – slashers, even if they are samey, will off a person every ten minutes or so. Whereas well-done dreams, jolts or jump scares can be exciting, but in the absence of many disposable characters it can be tricky to establish the entity as a threat to the leads. At least for the first two thirds.
Something that really elevates the material though, is Kincaide’s intimate focus on Lucy and Ben’s life together. The lore goes that the parasite feeds on negative energy – in this case, it’s silent resentments and the threat of domestic violence. Bethan Waller and Johnny Fleming have a great chemistry, capturing their characters at both their best and their worst. The opening scene, where the two of them have coupley banter, is a joy to watch and makes their arguments even harder to watch. And though they can be repetitive, which I suspect is done on purpose to capture the stress of that as an aspect of daily life, they stay the main draw of the movie. Demons are bad enough, but there’s something more real driving it. There are few things more uncomfortable than a person you love not believing you or, worse, the thought they may possibly even hurt you. At first Ben is barely paying attention – being nose-deep in his laptop, working on the latest financial deal. As it becomes more apparent something is seriously wrong, this apathy turns to an aggressive denial and the need to control her. It’d be easy to just play him as a bastard, though Fleming digs deep to ensure even his worst scenes come from a place of love. He’s manipulative and he’s threatening, but he’s also ill-equipped emotionally to help her. There’s also a tragedy to his denial and attempts to shake what he sees as delusions out of her, exacerbating the problem. I would say his character journey is, by some distance, the most rewarding and challenging.
The supporting cast, who get a bigger role to play as it goes on, is underdeveloped – especially Ellie.
Tara Hoyos-Martinez has a contagious energy about her, being someone you’d want to hang out with, but still speaks mostly in exposition – giving helpful suggestions to move along the plot. Without a stronger foundation, I was disappointed when the focal point changed for the second half and Lucy became sidelined. Perhaps more so than other subgenres, possession films will forever be compared to that one great one – which established the cinematic language of exorcisms. Hence the talks about the nature of faith, sin and salvation, while good, go roughly as expected. Bringing in a familiar mini-arc late on also slows the film down a lot. However, Waller does an excellent job in a physically demanding role. After being passive for much the first half, she gets to let it all out – doing raw, guttural calls and prowling like an animal. She ends up many miles away from the ‘not like the other girls’ lead I first saw her as. I just wish the whole film had been less like the other supernatural horrors.