Don’t look now, Team Edward fans, but it’s looking like demons are heating up the silver screen again and may just be the antidote to the latest vampire craze. With last year’s hugely successful Paranormal Activit
y (its sequel is due out this fall), the indie hit The House of the Devil, and – my personal favorite – the campy, yet terrifying Drag Me To Hell, The Last Exorcism becomes the latest horror installment to conjure up the demons to try and create box office success.
Daniel Stamm (A Necessary Death) directs this faux documentary, and relies on mostly unknown actors and the modern genre’s use of a hand-held camera to do the filming here. The setup is that the documentary’s “crew” is going to follow a disillusioned preacher, Cotton Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian (Big Love), as he agrees to perform one last exorcism, on camera, in order to expose exorcism for the scam he thinks it is.
Set in rural Louisiana, Marcus and the two crew members make their way to the Sweetzer farm, where local farmer Louis (played by Louis Herthum) believes his teenage daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Livestock are turning up dead, and he’s got animal corpses and Nell’s bloodied nightgowns to prove it. Of course after speaking to the young girl, she doesn’t remember doing any of it, and because Marcus doesn’t believe in demons, with only the crew in earshot he quickly turns to implications that perhaps something else is going on here: incest and psychological abuse at the hand of either her father or her extraordinarily creepy older brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones).
Still, he keeps up the holy-roller ruse in front of the family and agrees to perform the exorcism on Nell. Only Caleb seems any wiser to the theatrics that Marcus employs during his “exorcism,” and after Nell agrees to accept the Lord into her life, Marcus takes Louis Sweetzer’s wad of cash and readies himself to leave the farm. This is when things start to go awry, and to reveal much more would spoil the twists and turns The Last Exorcism takes.
While there is plenty of jump-in-your-seat moments in the latter half of the film, the action is slow to build to that point. I was okay with this, because the dialogue and dry humor in the first half of the film (written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland) are mostly entertaining, save for a few groan-inducing moments and some definite clichés, but it did seem to make much of the audience in my screening a bit restless (and talkative, which always seems to be the case when I see a movie in the city). My biggest problem with the movie is that, after showing so much restraint throughout most of it, the last few minutes take what would have been a quiet, creepy little flick and turn it into something else – something much more reminiscent of another, much more well-known horror film – because it lessens the effectiveness in this particular case and made me like it less than I would have otherwise.
The Last Exorcism sets out to make you uncomfortable; taking on fundamentalist religious beliefs, rural stereotypes, incest and demons isn’t exactly light material. I was actually a bit surprised to see that it was only given a PG-13 rating; I guess the folks at the MPAA were expecting a more foul-mouthed possession performance, akin to Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist, which you won’t see here, or perhaps after seeing Eli Roth’s name attached (he’s the producer) they were anticipating graphic violence, a la Hostel. You won’t get that either. You will get the grittiness and fake realism that the genre relies on, and while the effectiveness of this is starting to dissipate, in this case it mostly works because of solid performances turned in by the actors.