Opening on Friday, August 27
Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus
Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer
Louis Herthum as Louis Sweetzer
Iris Bahr as Iris
Caleb Jones as Caleb Sweetzer
Tony Bentley as Pastor Gerald Manley
Directed by Daniel Stamm
A witch, the Jersey Devil, a serial killer who strives to be a legend, a city-stomping behemoth of unknown origin, aliens and a haunted house. All of these subjects have one thing in common: The reinvigorated faux documentary (or “faux doc” as some are calling it) structure many filmmakers are adhering to as a way to freshen up familiar trappings of the horror genre, furthermore tap into society’s You Tube generation and incessant craving for “reality” entertainment. It was only a matter of time before this was applied to possession and exorcists. And so, here we have The Last Exorcism, a schizophrenic, mediocre film that never lives up to its truly terrifying potential to bitch slap the soul or make you feel spiritually unclean. And, oh Lord, that ending. What a whopper worthy to be exorcised from the final cut.
Between this film and Ti West’s House of the Devil, I’m thrilled to see that there’s this palpable desire among filmmakers to return to the creepy devil-fueled fare of the ’70s and ’80s. In those two decades, we saw films that either delivered on subtlety or went to extremes with goat beasts and wild-eyed Satanists running amok. My heart holds love for movies in both categories – believe me, I love The Devil Rides Out, Race With the Devil and, of course, The Exorcist (much of The Exorcism of Emily Rose succeeded for me) – but The Last Exorcism works best when director Daniel Stamm, whose previous film was A Necessary Death, embraces the quiet moments, allowing both his sound design and actors sell the “creep out” factor. This only carries Stamm so far, however, before the film feels like its poking about after fulfilling its checklist of scares.
Throughout The Last Exorcism, Stamm appears to be continually at odds with the documentary format. The use of a soundtrack for films of this type arguably don’t work. It instantly removes you from the intimacy of the material, separating you from the fact that you might just be watching footage you’re not supposed to be watching in the first place. You’re no longer a witness. You’re a movie-goer. Here, Nathan Barr’s soundtrack hits you with piercing stings and ominous rumblings, neither of which are welcome especially during the scares which could probably work on their own without the reminder from the score that “this is scary!” You also have to wonder how many camera men they’ve got to cover the action that unfolds. For the film’s purpose, there’s a camera man and someone on sound, however, its far too “produced” with all the right reaction shots at just the right time you need them. There should be something raw about this film. It appears as if Stamm simply wanted to drop the documentary approach and tell a straight-up movie.
Those technicalities aside, and they’re big ones to point out since the “approach” to the material is the thrust of The Last Exorcism, where Stamm excels is in the performances he extracts from his actors. Patrick Fabian is the film’s real revelation as Reverend Cotton Marcus, a Louisiana preacher and family man who has been doing exorcisms for years. Fabian, with the assist of Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s script, makes Cotton an instantly amiable, layered character with a good sense of humor (reciting a banana bread recipe during a sermon to prove his congregation will “amen” to anything) and a warm heart. It’s the type of swift and well-executed character set-up that’s sorely lacking in genre films today. So when he embarks to Ivanwood, Louisiana to exorcise a young woman named Nell (Ashley Bell), you’ve got his back. And even though he’s been duping people for years with his exorcisms, you don’t feel any disdain for this because his intentions are pure and his invitation to bring a camera crew along on his last job is organic and justified.
Once the film dispenses with the clever laughs – the film is definitely clever at times – and Cotton’s initial exorcism, during which he demonstrates all of the tricks of the exorcism trade, Stamm is allowed to test his chops in the “scares” department when the story calls for things to get a bit more real than Cotton anticipated. The results are varied at best. Stamm can create an unsettling atmosphere and when Nell begins to get a bit loopy he knows when to simply let an eerie noise play out to make your spine tingle. But there’s always this omnipresent feeling that Stamm is holding back and not letting some of the scares go too far. The titular exorcism itself is also weak, in spite of actress Ashley Bell’s ability to contort her body.
The Last Exorcism is a mixed bag of frights* watered down by the script’s desire to throw a few twists into the last half of the film to keep the viewer second-guessing the reality of Nell’s predicament. These turns in the plot make the film feel a bit bloated and, like a fault of another smart faux doc Behind the Mask, you begin to grow distant from the main protagonist in the final act. Overall, the film tries, but it doesn’t focus to try hard enough – all show and no go. It wants to make you a believer in its events, but it falters at carrying you all of the way. Worse still, the heavy metal album cover of a finale is preposterous and loud enough to almost make you forget the elements of the film that worked. Heaven help us, indeed.
*How this film landed a PG-13 while Paranormal Activity landed an R-rating is baffling.