Screen Rant's Vic Holtreman reviews The Last Exorcism
I didn't really know what to expect going in to The Last Exorcism. It looked effectively creepy from what I'd seen in the trailer - and having Eli Roth's name attached as producer didn't sway me one way or the other. It was directed by Daniel Stamm, a fellow with a couple of small films under his belt, so in I went without expectations.
As the film started, I was surprised to see that they were going the first person faux documentary route. Right off the bat that rubbed me the right way for some reason - it told me I wasn't getting just another slick, packaged horror movie production.
We're introduced to pastor Cotton Marcus, a charismatic husband and father who can make his congregation eat out of his hand with his fiery sermons. He was groomed to be a preacher since he was a young boy and while he has been a believer his entire life, he's begun to have doubts about his belief in God.
But a guy's gotta eat, right?
So despite his recent loss of faith he continues to preach - and to make a few extra bucks on the side he performs exorcisms down in Louisiana where he's based. Now he's not all scam artist - he's read in the newspaper more than once about children who are inadvertently killed during exorcisms due to the methods use to expel the supposed demons. He of course doesn't believe in any such thing - that instead there are psychological reasons behind the behavior of supposedly possessed people. His logic is that if he gets to them first, before religious types who truly believe they're exorcising demons, he can save these folks from possible injury or death - and make recommendations that can get them some help.
For some reason (guilt, perhaps) he's revealing all this to a documentary filmmaker and her cameraman - and he wants them to come along on what he believes will be a typical pseudo-exorcism. They drive deep out into the country to find a father (Louis Herthum) raising his teenage son and daughter in virtual isolation from town. He lost his wife not too long ago and it was only his faith and turning to the Bible that allowed him to get through it. However sometimes at night his farm animals are being killed and in the morning his 15 year old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) wakes covered in blood with no memory of what happened.
Cotton gets busy laying the groundwork for his fake exorcism - setting up her room to project creepy sound effects, shake the bed, make smoke pour from a crucifix, etc. In the meantime he questions her and her family to try to get to the bottom of the real problem. Eventually of course, things get far more serious and bizarre than anything he's encountered before and as things progress he begins to wonder if she can possibly be so deeply disturbed - or if something truly supernatural is going on.
The movie wouldn't work at all were it not for the charm that Patrick Fabian brings to the role of Cotton - sure, he's a scam artist trying to earn more money to support his family, but you can see that at the bottom of it all he's got a good heart. At one point, with a chance to leave with a fat roll of bills he decides to return because he's truly concerned for Nell.
Speaking of Nell, Ashley Bell does an outstanding job of portraying a truly wide-eyed innocent caught up in something she cannot understand but wants desperately to escape. That makes it all the more effective when she crosses over to being possessed.
Personally, I'm a fan of this style of filmmaking when it's done once in a great while - there may be comparisons to Paranormal Activity, but to me it seemed more like the original Blair Witch Project (in a good way). Unlike Blair Witch, there's no ruining of the movie once you know for sure it's fiction - that's a given going in.
Everything is shot with a handheld camera, but it's not excessively shaky as one might fear. There is a lot of use of low light photography (to great effect) and there's a low budget feel to the whole thing that just makes it get under your skin that much more. There isn't much gore (it's PG-13 after all) but some of Nell's physical contortions (which are real and not CGI) are at the very least unsettling to watch. The films unravels slowly, keeping the audience on the fence as to whether Nell truly is possessed by a demon or whether she's suffering some deep psychological trauma from recent events.
All good so far, right? Well the first thing that detracts from the film is the decision to add music to the soundtrack about 2/3 of the way through. It was surprising and took me out of the documentary feel that the film had worked so hard to establish up until that point. It was nothing overly "cinematic" by any means - just some low key suspense music to amp up the tension... but I found it had the opposite effect, pulling me out of the film.
If you're religious, the portrayals of the locals as fairly ignorant will put you off, although they don't overdo it much and with Fabian on screen as a guide it softens it quite a bit. Overall however, do be aware that the overall "message" of the film isn't exactly favorable to people who are believers.
As the film progressed I was curious where it would lead - would Cotton find that Nell was truly possessed and that he'd have to reach deep to rekindle his faith and save her? Or would he (in an anti-climactic fashion) find that she just needed psychological help after all? Sadly, after a fairly interesting journey The Last Exorcism COMPLETELY jumps the rails in its last 10 minutes.
It's as if they either didn't know how they should finish the film, or thought "Hey, let's throw this wild, crazy ending in there that'll knock people for a loop." Well I'm here to tell you that as far as I'm concerned it was a HUGE miss - squandering the goodwill the film had built up with the audience in the preceding 90 minutes. It's ridiculous not only one one level but many - completely ludicrous and unsatisfying.
I usually include a trailer for the film here but really if you plan on seeing the movie and you haven't seen it yet, it's best you do yourself a favor and don't - leave everything for the film itself. Oh, and while it's PG-13, the real-world approach to what's happening on screen is the stuff of nightmares for kids, so I'd leave them at home for this one.
In the end I really would have liked to have given this a stronger recommendation, but if you're looking for something a bit different in a horror movie and are a fan of the first person/documentary style you'll probably enjoy The Last Exorcism - right up until the really stupid ending.
If you've seen the film, visit our Last Exorcism spoilers post if you'd like to discuss the film without worrying about ruining it for those who haven't seen it yet.