Director: Daniel Stamm
Writer: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland
Producer: Eric Newman, Eli Roth, Marc Abraham, Thomas A. Bliss
Stars: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones
While followed by a documentary camera crew, a preacher who performs placebo exorcisms has his beliefs challenged by a girl who may be suffering from a true case of demonic possession.
“Found footage” movies nigh universally have the problem of finding a way to keep the first hour of the film engaging. They never want to show their cards too early and everyone knows the best scares are reserved for the last 10 minutes. “The Last Exorcism” jumps this hurdle by turning its first act into a satisfying character exploration with a genuine interest in meaningful drama. “Exorcism” begins with a focus on the man of the cloth who will be performing the title.
Tent revivalists and televangelists build empires of wealth by fleecing the naïve and the gullible with no nobler a goal than satiating their selfish vices. Similar to these ordained conmen, Reverend Cotton Marcus is also a fraud. But unlike his peers, Cotton has more sympathetic intentions. He uses exorcisms as a sugar pill to help those he thinks are possessed by a demon of the psychosomatic variety. His aim is to purchase his handicapped son a new hearing aid. There seems to be little harm in a pretend exorcism banishing a pretend demon if the end result is that everyone is happy. Unless it turns out the demon is more than a figment of imagination.
Reverend Marcus may not be the most convincing preacher, as his flair for showmanship takes precedence over the word of God, but he is a compelling character. I might have paid more attention in church as a youth had my pastor trumped up his sermons with card tricks and sleight of hand. At once likeable and accessible, wearing plainclothes or a linen suit instead of a collar or cassock, Cotton takes a modern approach to faith. His personal beliefs do not include spirits and demonic possession, but it would be bad for business if his followers found that out. Albeit well intentioned, his exorcism racket is a swindle nonetheless. Immediately there is an interesting moral conflict in the nature of what he is doing in the first place. He is slick, yet not a hardcore hustler. Patrick Fabian makes Cotton so engaging that he very easily carries “The Last Exorcism” through the traditional first act trough.
With a documentary crew in tow to record the secrets of his particular trade, Cotton travels to the Sweetzer farm to meet the family at the center of what is planned to be his final exorcism. Nell is a prototypical farmer’s daughter: innocent to the point of naïve, with plain looks and a wholesome personality. As Nell, actress Ashley Bell encapsulates all of these traits, although in initial scenes she plays Nell as overly sweet. Her smile is so eager that it would not be unexpected to see her cheeks explode at the thought of organizing her sock drawer. The way she perks at every slight compliment is liable to introduce more eye rolls than empathy.
Then again, it could be intentional. If Cotton’s general assumptions are correct, then Nell’s possession is just an emotional or mental disturbance. Or, it may even be that she is savvier than she lets on and could be up to a greater con than Cotton.
After introductions conclude, the movie launches into an exploration of Nell’s peculiar affliction, including some of the perils of faith and religion. Is Nell simply insane or could there actually be a demon inside of her? There are no CGI effects to be found in “The Last Exorcism.” Everything caught on camera is actually caught on camera, which lends a very distinct feeling of authenticity. Without overt supernatural elements, it has a sense of being grounded in an identifiable reality where even demonic possession might be possible.
Adding to the realism are several convincing performances, particularly Louis Herthum as Nell’s father and Tony Bentley as the family’s previous pastor. Some of the slower moments leading to the finale can grow dull, but the script and cast create multi-dimensional characters that are genuinely interesting. Watching the drama of the Sweetzer family struggling with Nell’s situation is as engaging as pea soup and spinning heads. Inject a huckster minister with a compelling personality into the mix, and waiting for horror to unfold is anything but a chore.
Some critics have claimed the conclusion to be ambiguous, while really it is more open to interpretation than promoting any real bewilderment. Given that the general subject of the film has been well traveled, the ending takes a turn as satisfyingly unpredictable as the rest of the film. The realistic performances only make the final payout that much more shocking. What “The Last Exorcism” creates is a film that satisfies not only as “found footage,” but also plays as one of the better exorcism/possession films not directed by William Friedkin.
Review Score: 75