The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Last Exorcism was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
There is a point, roughly 80 minutes into The Last Exorcism, that would have been a great conclusion for the film. Hardcore horror fans would have cried foul, claiming it to be a bait-and-switch, but as far as the film goes, it would have been a sublime, emotionally satisfying conclusion. Unfortunately, the film continues for a supremely ridiculous climax that delivers laughs instead of the terror it was supposed to evoke.
The film is shot as a mockumentary following Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a flamboyant preacher living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cotton was groomed to be a preacher since he was a child and has grown up to be a charismatic example of the profession. He has performed exorcisms in the past, and constantly gets requests from families all over the South for his services. The only problem is that Cotton no longer wishes to be a preacher. Even more, he reveals that he isn’t sure that he ever believed in God and is ready to expose the exorcism racket as the fraud that it is. To do this, he picks a letter at random and, accompanied by the director of the “documentary”, Iris (Iris Bahr), drives into rural Louisiana. There, he meets Louis (Louis Herthum) and his teenage children Nell (Ashley Bell) and Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). Louis believes Nell is possessed by a demon because he keeps finding livestock slaughtered on his farm and blood covering Nell’s clothing.
To say anything more would be to give away the surprising twists the film takes.
Given the subject matter, perhaps the most surprising thing about The Last Exorcism is how much it focuses on the emotional states of all involved. Cotton is an ever-evolving enigma. Fabian plays him as a ham who just can’t help but seek out the spotlight. But he also manages to show how he uses his charm to hide the fact that he’s disappointed that he has become not much more than a con man. Nell is obviously in a fragile state, having lost her mother to cancer at an early age and secluded on the family farm where she is home-schooled by her alcoholic, fundamentalist father. Nell’s emotional problems allow director Daniel Stamm along with writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland to balance the very real possibility that Nell just needs psychiatric help with the far-fetched idea that she might actually be possessed. For much of the movie they manage to do an exceptional job of keeping that juggling act going.
While the success of the first act falls on Fabian’s shoulders, Bell manages to carry most of the second and third acts. While she overacts Nell’s wide-eyed innocence when first introduced, she more than makes up for this with her effective projection of terror and menace as the film continues. Many of the twists in the film rely on Bell taking them as seriously as the filmmakers, and she rises to the challenge, crafting a character who is just as sympathetic as she is dangerous. At many points in the film, it would have made sense for Cotton and Iris to leave but they are consistently drawn back by their concern for Nell’s safety. Bell’s performance goes a long way to helping make those stupid decisions seem understandable.
While the film finds humor in showing the tricks that Cotton uses to perform his exorcisms, it’s refreshing in that it takes seriously the pain of Nell and Louis. While Stamm flirts with condemning Louis’s fundamentalist form of religion, he never mocks his belief. This keeps Louis from being just a mere caricature, an important distinction as his character proves to be quite unstable.
While the film obviously cannot avoid the very long shadow cast by The Exorcist, the mockumentary format and the initiating idea of a man out to expose the con behind most exorcisms helps it stand apart. It may not be as scary, but it manages to be almost as intelligent as William Friedkin’s classic.
At least, it almost matches that intelligence until the ending.
The final five minutes of this film, while certainly crafted to increase the film’s horror credentials, are terrible. There is no other way to describe how the filmmakers betray the rest of the film with a cheesy, shock ending that plays like a parody of every bad regionally produced exploitation movie from the 70’s. It’s an insult to the audience and sent me out of the theater with a really bad taste in my mouth.
Still, there is much to like in the rest of the film. It’s an intelligent horror film that also works as a thoughtful exploration of religion vs. science. Just do yourself a favor and leave the theater at the 80-minute mark.
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