The Last Rite has its First Blood world première at FrightFest 2021
Writer/director Leroy Kincaide’s feature debut The Last Rite opens with the sound of slow ticking, and the image of a mantel clock. Time indeed will play its part in this slow-burning psychodrama, which begins near its end – with Ben (Johnny Fleming) sitting in anxious silence downstairs while the priest Father William Roberts (Kit Smith) heads gravely upstairs to face whatever is making the thudding noises coming from the bedroom. Further revelation of what awaits him in the bedroom is interrupted by the film’s title card, and then by a rewind to the days leading up to this crucial moment – but any viewer with even the vaguest grasp of horror grammar will already know that this film will ultimately feature possession and exorcism. Those chronologically earlier scenes begin in the same bedroom, and also with time, as we see a bedtime alarm clock tick over and wake Ben and girlfriend Lucy (Bethan Waller). They seemed such a happy couple, slumbering and spooning there – but as soon as Ben gets up and declines Lucy’s plea that he stay in bed with her, we can see the beginnings of tension in their relationship – tension that will only increase as Lucy finds herself increasingly unable even to sleep.
Most of The Last Rite tracks loving, cheery Lucy’s gradual submission to something in this domestic set-up that will tear her apart. The question of what exactly that ‘something’ is remains indeterminate, even overdetermined. It might be a spirit haunting Ben’s house (we hear that the previous owners “no longer wanted it” and moved hurriedly to Australia). Or it may be a trauma already within Lucy: she had terrifying nocturnal experiences as a child, leading her god-fearing parents to subject her to torturous religious treatments; and she is still grieving the death, two years ago, of her beloved grandmother (Rosalind Stockwell). Certainly Lisa is now experiencing night terrors again, which in one suffocating, sexualised sequence evoke Sidney J. Furie’s The Entity (1982). Yet she is also, while very much awake, catching glimpses of a silhouetted figure in a hat. This ‘shadow man’ may be a parasitic demon, as described by the nervous author Dr David Andrews (David Kerr), who is having to walk with his own shadows – or it may just be a dark manifestation of all the negativity and friction that unhappy, controlling Ben is bringing home with him every day from his job as a dealer in abstract art. After all, Lucy first spots the shadow man, as she tells Ben, “standing where you are right now” – and when Ben apologises for his own coldness towards Lucy with the words “All work and no play, I guess”, he is inadvertently citing, and so aligning himself to, the iconically bad husband from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). And of course, by the time Lucy has turned to Father Roberts, this picture is also being painted in Christian colours, with a Biblical demon once more entering the frame.
In other words, The Last Rite confounds the supernatural, the psychological and the spiritual in pinning down – or not – what exactly is afflicting Lucy. It is a matter hardly settled by the film’s inconclusive ending, leaving the suggestion that the heroine’s syndrome of problems – mental illness, sleep paralysis, childhood trauma, crippling grief, the patriarchy, maybe even genuine demonic possession – do not come with easy or pat solutions. One of the odd notes in the film’s third act is Father Roberts’ insistence, against the express advice of his immediate superior (Deborah Blake) in the church, upon the urgency of the action required. “Time in the world moves forward,” he tells her, “and yet we as a church stand still.” Yet in going rogue, and in taking on a major ritual (of which he admits that he has no experience), this minor, parochial clergyman is trying to find a simple answer to a question that is rather more complex, and that demands more patience – indeed, more time. Roberts may perform the rite promised by the title, but we suspect that it is just the first rather than the last step on Lucy’s long, perhaps lifetime-lasting, road to recovery.
Strap: In Leroy Kincaide’s debut feature, supernatural, psychological and spiritual frames vie to explain what has got into a young woman
© Anton Bitel