Being a recovering Catholic, I was raised to think of possession as a constant, unprovoked threat. Worse than cancer, more common than an eye roll from a tween, possession can swoop down and defile your soul at any time. That iconography still lingers in the back of my rational mind which is probably while exorcism films, a micro-genre within the huge horror genre, scare me more than my friends with more secular childhoods. ‘The Last Exorcism’, however, is scary enough to give nightmares to even the most logical Vulcan.
‘The Last Exorcism’ smartly side-steps all the stereotypes that have solidified into our cultural expectations of exorcism films (thanks to recent flicks like ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ and classics like the one that started it all, ‘The Exorcist’) by reinventing itself as a genre-hopping, sly thriller that keeps you guessing. There’s no head-spinning or freaky levitation here, what the film offers is much more unexpected and, therefore, much more unsettling.
You wouldn’t know it from the shameless trailers that try to cram enough jump-out-and-scare-you moments from the movie to make it seem like a cliche-packed standard horror flick, but ‘The Last Exorcism’ actually begins and a thoughtful, witty faux-documentary. We’re introduced to Reverend Cotton Marcus, a child preacher who has grown up into a Bible-thumping, frenzy-driving reverend who has begun to question his faith. He’s played with toothy charm by Patrick Fabian (an unknown to most of us, but not to my sharp-eyed, sitcom-devouring date to the screening who immediately identified him as Professor Lasky from ‘Saved by the Bell: The College Years’ who tried to woo Kelly away from Zach). Reverend Cotton has contacted the documentary crew that shoots what turns out to be ‘The Last Exorcism’ footage to expose exorcists, himself include, as snake oil salesmen praying on hyper-religious, desperate people. He picks one last family to “help” and then will retire forever from exorcisms.
Director and cameraman in tow, Cotton heads to a dripping-with-atmosphere backwoods Louisiana town to meet the Sweetzer family. Something terrible has been happening to apple-cheeked daughter Nell (played by a gem of a young actress Ashley Bell) in between her recorder practice and Bible reading. When Nell isn’t cured of her demon after Cotton’s usual bed-shaking, picture-rattling “exorcism” act, it becomes clear that Cotton is in over his head.
I went into ‘The Last Exorcism’ with low expectations. After all, how scary could a PG-13 movie be? Fear not, horror fans because that question was answered about thirty minutes later as I narrated the action to my friend who had buried her face in her hands. Perhaps it has something to do with the film’s producer, current king of torture-gore, Eli Roth. More likely though, the most successful moments of the film can be attributed to the stellar cast who is believable right down to the briefly glimpsed secondary characters (especially the shaky-voiced camera man and the adorable church secretary).
The faux-documentary feel of the movie has it’s pros and cons. It sometimes slips into the “Blair Witch” trap of nausea-inducing bumps and swings. For the most part, the realistic terms you’re forced to participate with work and work well. The “it’s only a movie” safety belt of standard horror films is removed and, as the small crew and Cotton survive a few more seconds, you let out a sigh of relief that you’ve survived along with them.
Just when you think you have ‘The Last Exorcism’ figured out, the third act descends into a chaotic, love-it-or-hate-it conclusion. Simply put, I loved it. Bold, surprising, and disturbing, the prize of the last five minutes is served on a silver platter to be gleefully devoured.