Title: The Last Exorcism
Directed By: Daniel Stamm
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Iris Bahr
When you go to see a movie about an exorcism, you know what to expect; a seemingly normal yet freaky subject, moaning, chanting and body contorting. The Last Exorcism really is just more of the same, but puts those elements to use in a rather unique way making them far more terrifying than one would expect without even being graphic. The Last Exorcism is a truly horrifying film, but doesn’t leave you with a pit in your stomach, rather a smile on your face. It’s scary, funny and entertaining and an excellent way to close out the summer.
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a preacher, but he’s also a showman. He can get his congregation to go along and feel good about anything he says, even a recipe for banana bread. Cotton takes the same approach to exorcisms. He puts his showmanship to work, conducts a fake exorcism, really makes his client believe he’s extracting a demon and everyone’s happy. The victim believes the demon has been removed and Cotton gets his money. It’s not as selfish as it sounds; Cotton is just trying to support his family and make sure he can afford his son’s hearing aids. However, after learning of a young boy killed during an exorcism, Cotton decides to make this next one his last and expose the practice for the scam that it is.
While being followed by a documentary crew, a lone cameraman and his producer, Cotton answers one last letter, that of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum). Louis’s livestock are turning up dead and believes his daughter (Ashley Bell) might be to blame, but not directly. He believes she’s possessed. A cocky Cotton approaches this situation like all of the exorcisms in the past; this is just some kid who has convinced herself she is being demonized. He’ll head to the house, perform his routine fake yet believable exorcism, get his money and be on his way. However, things don’t quite go as Cotton planned and the situation turns out to be far more serious than he could have ever imagined.
The first portion of the film is undeniably enjoyable. Fabian is as likeable as Cotton Marcus himself. He’s an absolute natural in front of the camera, keeping the viewer laughing the whole way through the introductory portion of the film. But it’s not all fun and games, Fabian highlights Cotton’s sentimental side as well, both in terms of his family life as well as his fading confidence in his faith. It’s this superb set up that makes the rest of the film so powerful.
The Last Exorcism goes from laughs and jokes to being downright terrifying at the perfect pace. Upon arriving at the Sweetzer farm we get small doses of the madness in the form of slaughtered animals and an unusual encounter with Louis’ son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). But overall, Louis and Nell are presented as normal people, fairly sheltered, but nice. Ever so slowly things escalate from mere bumps in the night to undeniable demonic behavior.
This is where the film’s sole pressing fault comes in. Cotton never really acknowledges the fact that this could really be an actual demonic possession. He’s constantly blaming Nell’s behavior on her mother’s passing and some other possible traumatic situations, which eventually becomes ridiculous. Perhaps an abnormally long walk in her sleep can pass as being a result of mental stress, but beyond that, it couldn’t be more obvious that there’s something seriously wrong with Nell, something entirely unnatural.
Still, this weakness stands no chance against the outstanding performances delivered by Fabian and Bell and the impeccable direction of Daniel Stamm. Fabian makes for the perfect hero and the perfect character to take you through the story. He’s likeable from the moment you meet him and stays so throughout the film, even when his decisions seem unjustifiable. As for Bell, The Last Exorcism just wouldn’t be the same without her. Her ability to transform from the quintessential innocent farm girl to a crazed maniac out for blood is really what makes the film so terrifying. Had the story been set in a more residential neighborhood in a more modern neighborhood like New York, as sad as it sounds, that change wouldn’t be as abnormal and frightening.
Concerning Stamm’s work, if you think you’ve had enough of the shaky cam format, think again. Between his direction and Zoltan Honti’s cinematography, this story really comes to life. It’s not that the duo manages to pull off a never-before-seen feat with the technique, they just keep it simple and stick with what works. Rather than have scares come right to the camera, most of the more shocking moments come at the end of long pans, allowing enough suspense to build before showing the viewer something that isn’t even all that scary, but still manages to catch you off guard.
After such a beautifully slow and effective build up, it’s really too bad The Last Exorcism has to come to such a rushed end. Perhaps the whole concluding scenario might have been more believable had we not zipped through it so quickly. Then again, what else can you expect from a film dealing with such profound subject matter? It has to come to a grandiose conclusion and while it may not be easily digestible, everything leading up to the moment is so enthralling it makes it palatable enough.
By Perri Nemiroff