Is THE LAST EXORCISM this generation’s version of THE EXORCIST? No: , with its faux-documentary style, backwoods setting, and ambiguous attitude toward possession, the filmcomes across more like an unholy hybrid of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE. By turns satirical and startling, THE LAST EXORCISM takes a low-key approach that emphasizes believability that yields impressively eerie dividends as it follows a minister who who sets out to debunk the practice of exorcism by allowing a documentary crew to film him at work. This laudable attempt at creating serious horror is guaranteed to make viewers sit up and scream – this is definitely not a roller-coaster joyride slasher flick. Unfortunately, THE LAST EXORCISM loses its way in the second half, particularly with an unsatisfying ending that undermines much of what has come before.
Imitation documentaries should have worn out their welcome by now, but at least initially, THE LAST EXORCISM makes good use of the form, allowing Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) to fill us in on his background as a child preacher who grew up to become a minister an exorcist. Since reading about an exorcism gone wrong (in which the possessed subject was accidentally killed), Marcus has had a change of heart if not a complete crisis of faith: although he rationalizes his past exorcisms (by saying they removed the “thought” of possession from the victim), he feels he can prevent future deaths by exposing exorcism as a fraud.
It’s a good set-up. Marcus is an ambiguous character, but he seems (initially) to be sincere in his attempt to make amends for his past, and we can’t really blame him for what he used to do (he was raised to be a preacher by his father and never stopped to question that upbringing). However, his attempt to debunk exorcism on camera takes a weird turn: instead of exposing some other fraud, Marcus commits fraud himself. Whatever his avowed motives, he allows himself to be documented as he bilks a gullible farmer whose daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) appears to be possessed.
Perhaps this is the filmmakers’ way of maintaining Marcus’s ambiguity, but the film itself seems to overlook the problem: the on-screen documentarians are unconcerned with the criminality they are witnessing, and Marcus himself has no concerns that the film they are shooting might ever be used in court against him. These early scenes are marred by a slightly self-satisfied air: as we in the audience are invited to laugh at Marcus’s deception, THE LAST EXORCISM borders on condescension, even outright contempt, toward its rural characters, who are being played as rubes.
Unfortunately for Marcus and his crew, the case he chose proves to be more difficult – and dangerous – than imagined. Nell continues to exhibit signs of possession after Marcus completes his exorcism, and her father Louis (Louis Herthum) would prefer to kill her rather than leave her possessed by a demon. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Marcus has no choice but to continue with the exorcism, even though he is convinced that Nell would be better served by a doctor.
Here, THE LAST EXORCISM ratchets up the tension in an effectively edgy way. Marcus goes from being a confident con man, in charge of the situation, to being in totally over his head. There is a certain satisfying thematic irony in seeing someone perpetrate a hoax and then find himself hoist on what he thought was his own bogus petard: it’s almost as if rural American were getting its revenge on the sharp city slicker. Needless to say, THE LAST EXORCISM is not the kind of film in which we can expect the character to learn his lesson and redeem himself; in the manner of E.C. Comics and Robert Bloch (e.g., “The Grim Reaper” episode of THRILLER), he is more likely to pay the price for his perfidy. It’s a “no win” situation, as one of the documentary crew says, and the audience fears the consequences will be tragic at least, and possibly lethal as well.
At this point, the early satire goes out the window as THE LAST EXORCISM morphs from a pseudo-documentary into an all-out horror show. The conventional camera style adjusts to include spooky angles and shadowy lighting, while ominous music arrives on the soundtrack. Although there is an unnecessary moment of gore (a real cat would be too quick to be bludgeoned by a camera in this way), thankfully, most of the manifestations of possession are kept low-key and believable; as in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, most of the horror comes from seeing the possessed girl contort herself in horribly painful ways, leaving the question of whether the case is “authentic” open to question. ( For example, the eerie poster image of the girl pinned to the ceiling does not appear in the film, unless you count a shot of Ashley sitting atop a hutch).
The stylistic shift is actually a welcome touch: like an earlier montage (which intercuts Marcus perpetrating fraud with shots of him explaining the magician style tricks he uses), the use of manipulative music and editing suggest that, unlike THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, we are watching not raw footage but a finished documentary. However, unlike DIARY OF THE DEAD (in which how the documentary came to be complete is actually part of the story) THE LAST EXORCISM is cheating – something that will not be apparent until the misguided ending.
This last-minute misstep should not blind us to the film’s virtues, in particular its performances. In a convincing cast, the two leads stand out. Despite the quibbles one may have with Marcus, Fabian makes him engaging, and he perfectly manages to the character’s midpoint shift from confidence to concern; you feel the level of sincerity that drives him to stick with the case even after his involvement should have been officially over. Bell also manages to pull off a convincing metamorphosis, from innocent to demonic, with the right shading to leave us guessing whether she is possessed or mentally ill. Even better, the occasional overt outbursts of violence are overshadowed by the subtle, quieter moments, like the sinister hint of a smile she flashes at the camera – and by extension at the faux-documentary’s cameraman, who has begun to fear that Nell intends to kill him.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE ENDING [SPIOLERS]
After building to a frenzy that seems to resolve itself into a rational explanation, THE LAST EXORCISM reaches one of those unsatisfying “conclusions” that is obviously just a set-up for a twist. Learning a new key fact, Marcus and crew head back to the farm one last time, where they encounter a satanic ceremony. At first the imagery has a creepy Nathaniel Hawthorne vibe, presenting a shadowy “alternate” reality that exists in the dark forest at night, conflicting with the character’s safe daylight assumptions. However, when Nell gives birth to a baby that is described as “not human” we realize that THE LAST EXORCISM has tripped into the realm of bad ’70s exploitation, abandoning credibility in favor of “it’s only a movie” schlockiness. Do we really need another film telling us that isolated communities are nothing but a front for nefarious cult activity?
As Marcus races towards the flames – which flare as if to suggest an actual demonic presence – THE LAST EXORCISM could have been on the verge of a powerfully dramatic conclusion that would have resolved its mysteries. Instead, it opts for the arbitrary “got you in the last scene” conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. This provides a jolt or two and even pays off on an earlier set-up (a drawing by Nell that foretold the outcome), but it undermines the earlier use of editing and music: the abrupt BLAIR WITCH-type coda leaves us wondering who was left alive to manipulate the film in post-production – a concern that does not seem to trouble THE LAST EXORCISM’s actual filmmakers.
It is unfortunate that THE LAST EXORCISM takes the generic way out in its final moments, which violate the integrity of the project. I am not a big fan of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but at least it stayed true to the conceit of a being a “found” film. THE LAST EXORCISM delivers an intriguing story with more than enough scares to satisfy cinematic thrill-seekers, but if producer Eli Roth, director Daniel Stamm, and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland had stuck to the rules they themselves established, their film could have been even better.
Whether or not it stays true to its faux-documentary conceit, THE LAST EXORCISM ultimately abandons its aspiration to be something more than just an effective genre film. Early on, Marcus states that if you believe in God, you must believe in the Devil, as if this were an incontrovertible theological truism. THE LAST EXORCISM is not particularly interested in exploring this idea – which is far from universally accepted in religious circles – nor does the film have much interesting to say about exorcism, possession, faith, or religion, which are used as a foundation for effective scare tacitcs. On this level, the film mostly delivers, but it lacks the resonance that made THE EXORCIST an enduring classic.
UPDATE: I have to admit that Boston.com’s Jesse Singal summed up THE LAST EXORCISM much more succinctly than I:
It’s like director Daniel Stamm and his crew realized they were treading awfully close to making a film with real depth and edge that horror audiences might hate, and they just couldn’t pull the trigger.
THE LAST EXORCISM (Lionsgate: August 27, 2010). Produced by Eli Roth. Directed by Daniel Stamm. Written by Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland. Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley, John Wright Jr., Shanna Marcus, Justin Shafer, Carol Sutton, Victoria Paternaude, John Wilmot, Becky Fly, Denise Lee, Logan Craig Reid. Shot under the title, COTTON.