Directed by Daniel Stamm, starring Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum and Caleb Landry Jones. Released 2010.
Before I begin the review I’d like to start out with a little history lesson on the point of view (POV) style of filming. A little low budget horror movie by the name of Cannibal Holocaust was released back in 1980 and for those of you unfamiliar with the film it was the first significant step into the POV/documentary sub-genre of horror, albeit an extremely controversial first step (several members of the cast were instructed to lay low for a year, leading people to believe they had actually died during filming.) Despite a few mainstream successes that use this found-footage technique, most notably the Blair Witch Project, it is still a relatively rare approach to film making that focuses more on atmosphere than gore. Feeling smarter?
The major benefit of filming in the POV style is the sense of immediacy and immersion it exacts on the audience; you feel right in the middle of the action and sympathize with the characters as the risks they’re taking seem that much more real. Such is the case with The Last Exorcism, a story that follows a Louisiana Preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) and the events leading up to, as the title implies, his final exorcism. In a nice twist by the screenwriters, Cotton actually turns out to be a fraud: although he’s performed exorcisms, he frames them as a kind of psychiatric exercise, in that people believe they’re possessed by demons, and so an exorcism may actually be precisely what they need to free themselves of that belief. Through a serious case of good ol’ hubris, Cotton decides to have a film crew document his journey into the backwoods of Louisiana for what he says will be his final fake exorcism.
He arrives to the Sweetzer farm and comes across poor Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), a terribly frightened young girl who has apparently been murdering livestock in her sleep. Convinced that her behavior is all just a reaction to her mother’s untimely death, Marcus begins setting up his first “exorcism” and we see an in depth look at all the behind the scenes work he does to make it as real as possible (fake devil noises, battery-powered shock rings and the like). It is quickly revealed, however, after the first exorcism doesn’t take, that there is something deeply wrong with little Nell and Marcus may have to come face to face with the devil himself to save her.
Exorcism follows the Paranormal Activity mentality that a creepy noise coming from the other side of a door can be just as frightening as actually seeing what’s making it. One perfect example of this is a terrifying scene where the film crew is running frantically around the house trying to find the source of a crying baby. The camera staggers as the crew bolts as fast as they can around the house, and with every dip and sharp turn the camera makes, you cringe at the anticipation of some creepy crawly jumping out at you. It’s a relatively simple effect, but it couldn’t be any more powerful.
While the majority of the scares come from the atmosphere and the slow hand-held shots, Ashley Bell’s performance as the possessed Bell is terrifying. While she never goes to the extremes that Linda Blair went to in The Exorcist, she is still able to be absolutely ferocious when needed, and her ability to convey threat by staring blankly at the camera or giving a sinister smile is uncanny. In addition to that, it is also surprisingly refreshing to have a horror movie without a ridiculously two dimensional protagonist. Too often we see the oblivious blonde wandering aimlessly about into dark rooms that couldn’t be any more apparent in their danger if they were marked with a sign that said “Walking into this room will lead to a slow, untimely death.” Patrick Fabian’s portrayal of Cotton starts out as a holier-than-thou showman and gradually transforms into a man struggling to find his faith in God. It makes for a character that is not only believable, but one that we want to see succeed.
While it seems like I’m praising this movie, it most certainly isn’t perfect. It has its fair share of weak points, the most obvious being the ending which can be described as…questionable at best. Also, the short run time of only 87 minutes left me disappointed that they didn’t squeeze in at least one more major scare. But, for what it is, The Last Exorcism is one of the better horror movies to come out this year thanks to its reliance on atmosphere and its phenomenal performances. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel come out for this one, despite the obvious irony in the title. I don’t know though, I think The Last Exorcism 2: The Lastest Exorcism has a certain ring to it.