Neither as good as I’d hoped, nor as bad I’d feared—nor, for that matter, as unintentionally funny as the trailer suggests—Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism is a pretty good little horror picture that just misses the chance of honoring the Velveeta-splattered halls of the truly cheesy. And I mean that as a regrettable thing, because a fromage-et-frisson-filled fright flick can be a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A “pretty good little horror picture” is a thing of minor amusement, where six months from now you’re apt to be asking, “What was the movie where such and such happened?”
The story is kind of Elmer Gantry Goes Best Two Falls Out of Three With Satan. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a flashy evangelical preacher who was brought up to be that from the moment he could slap the Good Book with righteous fervor. More, he’s an exorcist from a supposedly long line of exorcists, but he’s also had enough of it—along with a crisis of faith—and is allowing himself to be filmed for a documentary about specious ministers and bogus exorcists. He even wants the film crew to go with him to record his last exorcism—where he’ll reveal all the tricks of the trade. After slapping the Christian fish magnet on the back of his van, Cotton, the filmmaker (Iris Bahr) and the cameraman (heard, but barely glimpsed) head off for the backwoods of Louisiana where—since there’d be no point in the movie otherwise—they get more than they bargained for.
The details of this backwoods area—filled with fundamentalist religion and general superstition—are sketched in with a degree of cleverness and observation that is at once amusing and disconcerting. The same is true of the first encounters at the farmhouse, where Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthurn), the distraught farmer who sent for Cotton, lives with his teenage son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and theoretically possessed daughter Nell (Ashley Bell). Something is just a little bit off about everything, though the film distracts us with the tricks of the exorcism, during which Cotton ostensibly drives out a demon named Abalam. (I kept waiting for a rendition of “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Abalam,” but no such luck.) The exorcism appears to go exactly as planned—producing the desired result of working psychologically on Nell. Or so it seems.
When Nell shows up at Cotton’s motel room—a location she is unfamiliar with, five miles from home—and exhibits strange behavior, it’s obvious that something is amiss. Just how amiss is what makes up the rest of the film. Some of it is creepy in the extreme—and often it’s a simple touch like Nell’s sly smile at the camera just as a door shuts. Other things are uncomfortably humorous.
However, the flaw in the ointment lies in the movie’s faux-documentary approach. The film can cheat all it likes—and it likes to cheat a good bit—but it’s nevertheless tied to the dubious subgenre and forced to adhere to its limitations. Personally, I’m of the opinion that the Blair Witch-ification of any film works against it. However, it’s worse here, since The Last Exorcism insists on a climax that really needs to—and clearly wants to—go over the top. Unlike a lot of critics, I didn’t mind the leap to gonzo nuttiness. But the single-camera approach thwarts the nutso enthusiasm and turns the big ending into a not-so-big fizzle. What’s so very unfortunate about this is that the film has numerous good moments—some that are better than good—and a knowing sense of humor. It’s hard not to want the movie to be more than it finally is.
At bottom, I liked the film more than I didn’t and was entertained. The acting was miles ahead of anything I’ve seen in this subgenre, while the lighting wasn’t substandard and the hand-held camera was used intelligently for the most part. At the end of August, that’s a lot more than I expected. Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material.