The Last Exorcism review
Upon finishing The Last Exorcist, a good friend of mine asked me how it was. My response? "All build up and tension to a creepy literal end." I've had some time to think about that statement, and I stand by it. The Last Exorcist is a creepy film that doesn't rely upon gruesome gore (there's a little of that) to unsettle its audience. Rather, what is creepy is the ambiguity of possession, the faltering understanding of demonic power in contemporary society, the is-she-possessed-or-is-she-not-possessed conflict.
Well, it's creepy until that literal end. Then whatever spark the film had is dampened.
That's getting ahead of ourselves. The Last Exorcist is a faux-documentary, “found footage” story (a la The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield), profiling Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) and crew detailing the process of exorcising. Now Rev. Cotton isn't just any old preacher. You see, this son of a preacherman had been preaching since childhood, and exorcising almost as long. With the birth of his disabled son, he has a crisis of faith, and with a few final preaching sessions (he's so good he can get “amens” from a banana bread recipe), he sets off on this documented final exorcism to expose himself as a fraud and redeem himself.
Cotton is an incredibly charming and funny man, and while there is an initial disgust at his methods (he's a con man through and through), he's believable in showing that his ministry and his exorcisms, had been a necessity for followers. While Cotton doesn't believe in god and demons anymore himself, his ministry helps people. Maybe we don't agree with the man, but he does everything with good intentions.
So they go off to a possession inflicted farm in southern Louisiana. There they meet the Sweetzer family: Alcoholic fundamentalist father Louis (Louis Herthum), stoic and angry son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and sweet naive Nell (Ashley Bell), who has been waking up with blood on her dress and farm animals freshly slaughtered. The next 60 minutes is a genuinely creepy, unsettling film in which we question the very nature of Nell's condition. For the backsliden Cotton, his faith is revamped and re-questioned, while his crew led by producer Iris (Iris Bahr) stand by their beliefs that Nell is suffering from a more earthly disorder. Either way, it's all creepy and nervous, with nothing clear.
That is, until the ending screws with all this interesting exposition. For a movie that sets up such a fantastic bit of confusion about the nature of the possession (Real demon possession? Psychosis? A side effect of incest?) director Daniel Stamm chooses to finish the film with an ending that not only ignores the previous 70 minutes of complexity that didn't pander to audiences, it also makes no sense to the plot. It comes out of left field, involves characters that just don't fit, and steps into a plot that is too literal and campy for the fantastically acted lead-in.
That's a shame too, because The Last Exorcism is wonderfully acted. Fabian does a fantastic turn as the conman preacher. He genuinely wants to help his family and the people he exorcises. There's nothing malicious about the things he does, and Fabian performs this with charming smiles and mild jokes. It's a fine balance, and he goes along fine. The other two break outs are Jones and Bell. Caleb's role as the creepy brother is unsettling and unexpected, and his role is unique, while Bell performs with such earnestly and innocence, her possessed transformation is even more disturbing.
Oh, and another thing. The whole “found footage” angle is great to a point. Many scenes, such as when Nell gets a hold of the camera, or the unsettling unknown when the camera is forced off, are great, but the whole effect is undermined by quick edits, a soundtrack of screeching violins and too “professional” shots that take us out of the moment. The Last Exorcism functions halfway between and fake documentary and a real film, and it weakens it.
And that's the big problem with The Last Exorcism. Director Daniel Stamm, has built a great horror film that returns to the fear of Satan, but it's undercut by a silly ending. It's a shame: There is no ambiguity that The Last Exorcism faltered from horror brilliance.