As I wrote in my Coming Attractions post, horror dealing with possession or satanic cults is horror that sticks with me when it is done well. Possession movies are most often a sub- set of the evil child movies. To be honest, I don’t normally care for evil child movies. It seems that many of them try too hard, rather than letting the natural creepiness of children lay a subtle framework for the film.
Enough about my preferences and on to the film at hand!
The Last Exorcism is not a story about a possessed child. It is the story of a pastor that lost his faith long ago, yet continues to preach and deliver people from demonic possession/oppression. The film is directed by Daniel Stamm, who, based on his filmography, likes to play with blurring the lines between documentary and film.
Patrick Fabian (prolific television guest star) plays Cotton Marcus, a Louisiana pastor who began his career as a preacher; I believe they said around age 6. Following in the footsteps of his father, Cotton learned the tricks and necessary traits to work the congregation into a frenzy.
After reading a story about the death of a child during an exorcism ceremony, Cotton decides that he can no longer continue to perform exorcisms. Cotton defends exorcism by saying that while he no longer believes in demons, (effectively stating that he no longer believes in a God) the service he once provided can help people that are held captive by the thought that they are possessed. Exorcism can help the mind release the thought, basically, because if one believes they are possessed, they can also believe that the ritual has set them free.
When Cotton comes across a story that The Vatican is opening a school to teach the exorcism ritual, he decides that he needs to take action to stop people from buying into the sham and to protect children from accidental death during exorcism. To do this, Cotton hires a film crew to follow him on what will be his last exorcism. Selecting a random letter from his pile of requests, Cotton tells the crew that they will follow the request to completion, capture it on film to reveal the process and thereby debunk exorcism.
The letter requesting help from the pastor takes the crew to southern Louisiana, an area, we are told, that because of the multicultural background, has many varied views of religion. The crew decides to get some footage of the locals talking about various superstitions that center around the area. I got the feeling that the crew was out to show how simple the townspeople were. That feeling was verified by Cotton in the last clip, interviewing the locals.
Cotton and crew arrive at the Sweetzer farm and must convince Louis Sweetzer, played by television “that guy” Louis Herthum, to allow the cameras. While we don’t see what was said during the exchange, we see Cotton using his charisma, charm and position as a pastor to convince Louis to allow the filming of the exorcism.
Then we meet Nell, the star of the film, played by the child like (You’re kidding… she’s 24?) Ashley Bell. Bell oozes the simple innocence of a sheltered country girl. She is polite in a way that is lost to today’s youth and there is a genuineness to her character. This innocence makes the demon manifestation even more unsettling. Bell can go from sweet, yet confused to downright creepy with nothing more than smile.
We are allowed to watch Cotton set up the space for the exorcism, complete with a myriad of party tricks that give the illusion of the supernatural. Cotton performs a trite, well rehearsed ritual and claims to have cast the demon out of Nell. Louis pays Cotton a fairly large sum of money and the crew departs.
This is where the movie kicks in.
I don’t want to give too much away. Everything I’ve given to this point is build-up for the second half. Suffice to say that the exorcism did not work and because of his arrogance, Cotton has put Nell in danger, potentially in more than one way. We get a chance to see the demon at work in Nell.
What we really get to see is Bell’s star potential. I am hopeful that this will be her breakout role.
As the movie progresses, we are left to wonder about secrets in a small town. Who is guilty, who is telling the truth and who all is involved. Questions that are answered before the final, unexpected ending of the movie.
One of the strong points of the film is that every image we see is viewed through the lens of the camera. One of the weak points is the shaky cam stuff. Some of the attendees of the film were not prepared for the extent of the shaky cam. Cloverfield would not have been a friend to those individuals.
Casey Criswell of the Bloody Good Horror podcast, who went with me to check this one out, said of the film, “While it was no “Exorcist”, it was still a pretty fun watch.” Casey’s right, it is no “Exorcist”, but maybe it’s The Exorcist for today’s generation. A generation whose horror consists mostly of poorly made remakes. This movie surpasses the last big film of a similar subject, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, by staying away from the courtroom and maintaining the use of the camera for our point of view. Nowhere near as shocking or well made as The Exorcist (Director’s Cut coming to theatres clocking in at 2hr 45 min.), The Last Exorcism plays well for the younger crowd, although, some will find that it drags a bit.
It’s not perfect, but few films are. I enjoyed it.
Out of $10, how much would I pay to see this again? $7, but only with people that have not yet seen it.