The Last Exorcism
Ever since a pubescent Linda Blair puked cold pea soup and did unmentionable things to a crucifix in her head-spinning turn as Regan in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, the Devil and the men of the cloth who fight him have been box office gold. The latest film to mine this seam, Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism, is a faux-documentary a la Blair Witch which uses the now familiar plot device of ‘found footage’ to scare some Jesus into you, its jaded audience.
Nursing a crisis of faith, evangelical minister the Reverend Cotton Marcus (the excellent Patrick Fabian) is a modern-day Elmer Gantry, a snakeoil salesman of the highest order, selling salvation to the gullible and as liable to preach a sermon about the recipe for his mother’s banana bread as he is fire and brimstone. Fed up of fleecing his flock of their hard-earned and unsure if he’s ever believed in God (his domineering father has had him preaching since childhood), Cotton has decided to hang up his Bible and find another line of work. However, motivated by a spate of tragedies involving children, Cotton has decided to do some good first and with the aid of a documentary film crew (Iris Bahr and Adam Grimes) he’s gong to expose the tricks of the sham exorcism trade by performing one last exorcism on camera. He’s going to pick, at random, one of the many cases begging for exorcism he’s sent by the faithful and the deluded, he’s going to exorcise the afflicted and he’s going to show us how he does it, every step of the way.
The case he chooses is that of good, God-fearing teenager Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), an innocent girl, home-schooled and isolated by her devoutly religious father (Louis Hertham) since her mother’s tragic death. Nell’s having blackouts, walking in her sleep and mutilating the cattle and her father’s convinced his precious little girl has a demon inside her. So Cotton, his film crew and his car-load of tricks, props and sound effects head for the family farm where Cotton works his magic, ‘performs’ his exorcism, trousers the cash and heads off to the local motel for some well-earned rest. Except something’s really wrong with Nell and Cotton finds his usual flim-flam just isn’t enough as he’s dragged deeper into her case and forced to confront his darkest fears as he realises that just maybe the Devil isn’t as fake as he is…
The idea of a jaded man of God going up against the Forces of Darkness Ô is nothing new. From Jason Miller in The Exorcist to Harvey Keitel in From Dusk Till Dawn to Gabriel Byrne in Stigmata we’re used to seeing tortured clerics finding their faith in God renewed by going toe to toe with evil. It’s enough to make you wonder, do you get to battle Satan if you’re not having a spiritual crisis? And ever since Rugerro Deodati’s Cannibal Holocaust did the whole found footage/this really happened trick first (and best), we’ve had 30 years of mockumentaries like The Blair Witch Project, Man Bites Dog, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield.
What sets The Last Exorcism apart is the tightness of it’s script which is playful to begin with as Cotton shows us the tricks of his trade and talks candidly about his life and career before becoming increasingly (and believably) darker as the film toys with our expectations (Is Nell really possessed or is she being sexually abused?) allowing us a dark glimpse of the hypocritical underbelly of American Christian Fundamentalism as Nell’s pious father is driven to murderous violence. Stamm’s direction is lean and economical creating an atmosphere of brooding menace. The film does occasionally stray from its documentary roots with dubious reaction shots and incidental music on the soundtrack but it supplies the necessary shocks to jolt the audience and favours subtlety over the lashings of gore you might expect from seeing Hostel-meister Eli Roth name in the credits as producer, playing on our very real fears of the ordinary. Is there anything more pant-wettingly scary than coming around a corner to see a silent figure standing in shadow at the other end of the corridor?
The Last Exorcism’s greatest assets however are its cast who take fairly stock characters and give us believable people. Patrick Fabian’s Cotton is a seductive showman, his easy charm and intelligence creating a character whose flaws serve to make him likable; a charismatic, caring man of God who’s also a huckster and a conman. Ashley Bell’s performance as Nell chills and fascinates, a beguiling mix of ‘aw shucks’ innocence and cold-eyed malice. Her half-glimpsed blank face twisting into a malignant grimace may be the creepiest moment of the year for me.
While it does lose it in the final reel with an obvious twist and a rather abrupt shock ending, the spectres of abuse and incest that permeate the film are as terrifying as any supernatural demon and the deeply religious, shotgun-toting father is a more solid threat than the Devil. The Last Exorcism is a bold, refreshingly unpredictable exercise in horror that’s power lies not in head-spinning histrionics and CGI demons but in the authenticity of the mundane. This film will haunt you.
Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Hertham, Caleb Landry Jones, Adam Grimes
Andrew Gurland & Huck Botko