The latest entry in the handheld-horror genre is no great shakes… or twitches… or spasms… The Last Exorcism is a familiar head-spin on the usual “demons begone!” routine. But while it lacks new, genuine chills, it does have a couple lead performances that are more nicely realized than in other video faux-umentaries.
It’s easy to understand why filmmakers go the “true-story” video route for low-budget horror films—it’s a very cheap way to get your film made, and the “homemade video” angle adds a layer of familiarity and therefore burrowing verisimilitude. But director Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism is not an amateur chiller shot in a backyard on zero budget with friends for actors. It may not be a big-star, big-budget SPFX fest, but Stamm is a working director and he’s hired real actors to play his “real” people in this small tale of small-town demon possession.
Front and center and owning it is TV bit player Patrick Fabian (Big Love) as Cotton Marcus (not Mather), an Evangelical preacher who learned from an early age that religious zealotry is best served with show-biz magic and the pulpit as the stage. Marcus used to do a little lucrative razzle-dazzle exorcism on the side, but it’s clear his heart and soul are in his wallet.
Supposedly bothered by the dangers of DIY home exorcism and in order to prove how it’s all faked, Marcus and his ego agree to let a film crew follow him on one last (well-paid) exorcism, this time of a young girl, Nell (relative unknown Ashley Bell) in a small Louisiana swamp town. If you’ve ever seen an exorcism horror film, or any kind of horror film, or just any movie at all, you can probably guess how things go for Doubting Cotton.
A mostly routine low-budget horror exercise, at least The Last Exorcism puts its emphasis on atmospheric chill and creepy images rather than squirting blood. (Which is good—I’m pretty sure Piranha 3D used up Hollywood’s supply of fake blood for the rest of the year… maybe the decade.) Most of those chills and creeps are also pretty familiar— there’s no giddily hyped Blair-anormal Activity phenomenon at work this time and not much you haven’t seen or that will haunt your nightmares.
The tale plays off the standard exorcism-movie hook for our demon-haunted world: the virginal teenage girl on the cusp of self discovery, who represents human society at its most innocent and vulnerable. (After all, it’s not that shocking when young boys curse and spit and kill cats for kicks.)
Despite its lack of frills, The Last Exorcism gathers a decent amount of suspenseful, foreboding mood and mystery–only to rush a slap-dash ending that leaves everything feeling like a stunt, or worse a punchline. (Last fall’s The House of the Devil from Ti West did a much better job of closing the carefully built-up deal with a shock finish.) And while Stamm’s hand-held documentary conceit has its advantages, there are too many times you’re jolted out of the narrative to ask “Why in the Hell would this person have the camera and be filming this right now?!”
Still, Fabian gives good sleazy charisma. His television roots have him coming off a little slick and posed, a little big for the story, but that works well here—he plays the preacher as anchorman. His showboating provides The Last Exorcism with a solid, watchable center, and Caleb Landry Jones is suitably sullen and threatening as Nell’s suspicious little brother, giving the character’s backwoods Deliverance stereotype a bit more honest distrust and menace.
And luckily Bell is just fine as demon-sotted Nell—when not possessed, she’s full of bashful wonder at the wider world past her cloistered home-schooled upbringing. The actress’s natural contortionist skills come in handy as well—Bell quite literally bends over backwards for the role, suggesting that when all this exorcising is done, a visit to Satan’s chiropractor may be in order.