Written by: Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Directed by: Daniel Stamm
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, and Louis Herthum
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“If you believe in God, then you have to believe in the Devil.”
Satan and his various demonic minions have been bedeviling movie-goers for decades. 1974’s The Exorcist provided perhaps their most famous cinematic adversary, and the forces of good and evil have continued to battle over the bodies of young, innocent virgins ever since. Out of this tradition comes The Last Exorcism, which takes the time-worn tale and re-delivers it in the form of a Blair Witch Project-inspired “found footage” narrative that reminds us that some demons are more difficult to exorcise than others.
Reverend Cotton Marcus is an evangelist who’s been preaching the gospel since he was ten years old. Most of his life, he’s been just as much a performer as a spiritual leader, a charismatic man who’s charmed his way into many congregations. He also happens to be a renowned exorcist, though he admits his work is nothing more than an elaborate stage show that still manages to cure his afflicted through the power of suggestion. A recent crisis of faith has lead him to denounce his fraudulent ways, and he sets out with a documentary crew to dispel the myth of exorcisms. His last client is the Sweetzer family in rural Louisiana whose daughter has apparently become possessed by a malevolent force that causes her to commit acts of violence. This seems to be a routine case until Cotton delves deeper and finds some very real demons within the walls of the house.
The Last Exorcism just feels like what a horror film should be. It’s atmospheric, gripping, violent, and, ultimately, haunting. The ability of a horror film to get under your skin and stay there might be the ultimate litmus test, and this one passes with flying colors. On a surface level, the film certainly feels like a cinematic patchwork; after all, its subject matter has been done more than a few times, while the documentary-style approach has been especially exhausted recently. This is a reminder that movies don’t necessarily have to be completely fresh to be effective; instead, they simply need to be well-done. There’s a lot of skill exhibited here, from the taut script to the inspired performances.
The most important aspect is the film’s tension-filled approach and its willingness to stay reserved until the time is right. Director Stamm knows that the documentary style alone doesn’t carry enough currency to create his world so he draws you into it. The silver-tongued Cotton is appropriately charismatic, and it doesn’t take long for you to buy into his motives. Similarly, the film makes great use out of a naturally evocative and atmospheric setting. The Bayou has been the haunt for many horror shows, and The Last Exorcism embraces it by capturing its eerie desolation. Before Cotton ever makes it to the Sweetzer farm, we’re introduced to a world steeped in rural superstition--one local citizen even swears that the gates of hell itself are “just down the road.” I’m a sucker for local mythology and old scary stories, and this one spends just enough time dwelling on its surroundings.
From there, the film continues to build to a frantic climax that hits all the exorcism high points, such as the requisite possession antics (body contortions are always fun, and this one doesn’t disappoint). A bit more unexpected is the compelling story crafted around the Sweetzer family itself, and the film dangles just enough possible explanations to keep you ensnared every step of the way. There are several undercurrents working beneath the supernatural tale that reveal the dangers of extreme religious psychosis, and the film pulls few punches when dealing with spiritual matters. While it’s difficult to classify this as a “crisis of faith” film, it certainly confronts the function of old religious superstition in a modern world.
In the end, it’s a horrifying experience all the way around. Stamm’s imagery is mostly subtle and unsettling, as the documentary approach captures everything naturally--this is the type of film that deals more with disturbing elements in the corners of the frame (and even out of it), rather than shoving them right in your face. This is not to say the film is without its share of shocks, and the film does ramp up to a chaotic and bewildering climax out of the Blair Witch mode. Of course, the center to any possession movie is the possessed, and Ashley Bell convincingly oscillates between two modes as Nell. She’s normally a sweet, innocent girl, played with a sense of wide-eyed enthusiasm because her strict father rarely allows her to leave the house. There’s a lot of darkness bubbling beneath this surface, and the performance is fittingly schizophrenic when Nell becomes more foul-mouthed and sinister.
While this certainly won’t be the Last Exorcism we ever see, it’s likely to stand as one of cinema’s more memorable ones. It’s a rather unexpected and perhaps ironic feat considering that its protagonist sets out to show the secrets behind the old demon-fighting practice. If you’re put off by the presence of producer Eli Roth, fear not--this is unlike anything else he’s been associated with in his career thus far. This is a legitimately good thriller that uses a time-tested horror trope to reveal the horrors of all sorts of demons--supernatural and otherwise. A trip to the theater with this one will certainly prove to be “an excellent day for an exorcism,” and it should certainly turn a few heads when it hits store shelves. Buy it!
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