Directed by Daniel Stamm
“The Last Exorcism” handles the idea of demonic possession differently from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” which you wouldn’t know from seeing the commercials, which sadly, don’t really focus on what makes the movie so unique. Using a similar approach as the excellent “Behind the Mask,” the entire movie is filmed as if it’s footage from a documentary crew, introducing the Reverend Cotton Marcus as he’s giving a sermon, while giving a play-by-play in interviews with the film crew. The filmmakers are trying to get to the bottom of Cotton’s exorcisms, and he’s quite up-front about how he takes advantage of gullible but devout Christians who believe that hes really helping them.
“The Last Exorcism” is certainly slicker than last year’s “Paranormal Activity” and to be perfectly fair, it was in production before that movie became such an enormous hit – though that movie was circulated long enough in horror circles that it could have influenced this movie. As much as it’s meant to look like a real documentary, it’s fairly obvious from the get-go that’s not the case, but it does a good job maintaining the illusion. Normally, a movie like this would be heavily improvised, but it’s tightly-scripted with dialogue that feels fairly naturalistic, even if some of the characters are derived from stereotypes.
Two performances really drive the movie, the first being Patrick Fabian, who is so amusing as the arrogant reverend who is just as entertaining while in front of his flock as he is when bumbling through the situation at the Sweetzer farm or reacting to the resulting scares. From the moment you meet Cotton, you can tell this is not your typical Southern Baptist evangelical preacher, as he freely admits not believing in the demons he’s being paid to exorcise. One of the more annoying aspects of the movie is its attempt to try and pass off Ashley Bell as a teenager, a virgin no less, when in fact she looks closer to thirty – in fact, she’s in her mid-20s. Even so, she’s a strong enough an actress to deliver what’s necessary both in the quieter scenes and when all hell literally breaks lose, but you’re still expected to suspend more disbelief than usual when it comes to her actual age.
There are plenty of creepy moments involving Nell appearing in different places in both possessed and “normal girl” form and lots of great surprises along the way we won’t reveal, since part of what makes the film so effective is never being sure exactly what’s going on, especially as Cotton’s skepticism and his “act” blurs the lines with what’s really happening. We’re always ahead of Cotton and the film crew realizing that something isn’t right with Nell–no surprises there–but the way they reveal more and more of what she’s capable of is what keeps you riveted to the movie. Like with “Blair Witch,” the camera acts like another member of the cast with us only from time to time hearing the voice of the cameraman behind it, but at least once during the movie, it’s used to great effect.
Daniel Stamm’s greatest talent as a filmmaker is being able to make a lot out of very little, which is no small achievement in a low-budget movie like this. When Nell sees the film director’s Doc Martens, she’s intrigued enough to try them on, a scene that seems oddly innocuous until later on, when we see the teen girl cowering in the corner wearing those boots and a broken chain around her ankle, having escaped from being chained to her bed by her father. It’s an image that’s as distinctive as it is unforgettable. Instead of relying on CG effects to enhance the scares in Nell’s possession scenes, Stamm instead allows the young actress’ own performance to drive those scenes to equally great effect.
The ending is disconcerting because the big reveal on what’s really been going on ends up being rather hokey compared to everything that’s come before, veering too far from the reality they’ve tried to establish throughout the movie. It’s also the one time where CG is misused, both things that ultimately hurt “Paranormal Activity.” Fortunately, “The Last Exorcism” is strong enough up until that point that a weak ending doesn’t completely kill the movie.
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