Title: The Last Exorcism
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Director: Daniel Stamm
Screenwriters: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr
It’s a cruel irony for horror fans: the more you watch, and the more youtr appreciation deepens, the more the genre loses the primal appeal that drew you to it in the first place. Sure, adjectives like “scary” and “intense” still have meaning. But as your tally rises, it gets harder and harder to have the it’s-just-a-movie experience you first fell in love with. Chalk it up to nostalgia, age, or a stouter constitution, as you like.
The Last Exorcism, an exceedingly clever and expertly made low-budget horror film shrewdly snatched up by Lionsgate in the wake of Paranormal Activity‘s runaway success, managed the rare feat of recapturing for me the adrenaline rush of my formative encounters with the genre — the giddy discomfort of a roller coaster ride. It did so not with gruesome effects of relentless jump scares, but by harnessing the visceral power of what-happens-next. Arriving with no fanfare at the tail end of the summer season, The Last Exorcism turns out to be one of its best surprises.
It also comes just as the mockumentary horror genre was beginning to get on my last nerve. If you’ve already had it with the likes of Paranormal Activity, Quarantine, and Diary of the Dead, proceed with caution: The Last Exorcism chronicles a (fictional) ill-fated attempt to film an “exorcism” performed by a scam artist preacher wonderfully named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) who cynically puts on a show to bilk the gullible and pious. Disillusioned with his own “profession,” he’s hired a documentary crew to record his response to a plea from a Louisiana farmer (Louis Herthum) who believes his 15 year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon.
Cotton arrives at the Sweetzer farm convinced that Nell either has a run-of-the-mill illness or is acting out. At first, his observations seem to confirm this. Nell is a normal, pretty teenage girl, impressionable, taken with the documentary producer’s fashionable footwear. Her dad is a religious nut, clearly gone off the rails after the death of his wife. Nell’s younger brother Caleb sees through both her dad’s dangerous fanaticism, and Cotton’s act. (Though he seems relieved when Cotton unambiguously reveals himself to be a fraud, dropping some Alka-Seltzer into a footpath to make the water “boil.”) It’s exactly what Cotton expected, and nothing that can’t be solved with a dog-and-pony-show “exorcism,” a sudden “message from God” that dad should quit drinking, and a few hundred dollars in Cotton’s pocket.
But then. It’s a no-brainer that there’s a “but then,” though what follows is for once not entirely straightforward. And it results in several truly remarkable scenes of shield-your-eyes-from-the-screen, maybe-I-should-just-leave suspense. This, by the way, is where the mockumentary format actually adds value: the searching camera, ostensibly operated by a character as scared as we are, and the veneer of (slightly altered) reality, make it feel like anything can happen. The Last Exorcism milks every drop of adrenaline from this principle. It’s in the best, purest scary movie tradition.
The movie’s interesting in other ways too, effortlessly moving from funny to creepy to terrifying in the same scene and even in the same shot. Watch for the part where Cotton and his camera crew run into Caleb on their way to the Sweetzer homestead and ask for directions.) The director, Daniel Stamm, gets easygoing, convincing performances from his no-name cast; neither the film nor the actors seem to be exerting themselves to create the documentary effect, with the result that we accept it almost immediately — and continue to believe it even when, in the later scenes, Stamm obviously begins to cheat.
The ending is ambiguous, abrupt, and not entirely satisfying, bringing to mind the startling coda of The Blair Witch Project. But even there, The Last Exorcism pushes hard to give us something memorable, and mostly succeeds. Horror movies these days are so often frivolous — formulaic larks calculated to provide mechanical thrills. Here’s one that delivers an experience.