Directed by Daniel Stamm
Thanks to its wicked humor and unexpected smarts, The Last Exorcism sets itself apart from many recent attempts at faux-documentaries. In the film, documentary filmmakers follow a disillusioned preacher who hopes to expose the danger exorcism poses in the modern age. He attempts to reveal the ignorance and superstition that fuels its resurgence, as well as the threat posed to the “possessed” individuals. Ultimately, the possibility of the victim dying is not worth the price of satiating a medieval mindset.
The film begins on a comic note, presenting the outrageous theatrics of Preacher Cotton Marcus. The comedy in this section is very broad, and there is a brief sense that the film is simply taking cheap shots at Christianity. However, as the film delves deeper into Cotton’s past, most notably his experiences as a “child preacher” and the birth of his son, we gain an interesting perspective into the “service” that he is providing. His belief in God may have wavered long ago, but he understands how others can find comfort in what he does, and it doesn’t hurt that it allows him to make enough money to support his family. As this portion of the narrative develops, the complexity of the film’s unique take on religion deepens. It becomes apparent that neither the characters nor the filmmakers are mocking religious people; rather they are questioning some of the fundamental beliefs and practices, while also pushing for a greater understanding of God.
Most of the film remains true to the documentary format, not only in style, but in its dedication to searching for greater truth. It isn’t simply a documentation of an “exorcism”; it is a reportage of the hidden meanings and inclination that drive an individual to believe in devils. Furthermore, the decision to adopt a documentary style rather to play into a more amateurish approach used in films like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, simply allows for more visual artistry. As impacting as those two films in particular may be, they are lacking in visual dynamism that makes a film worth revisiting a second time.
As Cotton becomes closer to the apparently possessed teenage girl, Nell, we are afforded more insight into her family life which sheds a disturbing light on her present situation. After the death of his wife, Nell’s father becomes a fundamental Christian and afraid that his children would be corrupted by the dark and scary world, he effectively pulls them out of society. It is only after this event that Nell began to show any symptoms of possession, and Cotton ascertains that the stress of her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent behaviour may be the actual root to all of her problems.
Cotton prepares for the “exorcism” by setting up magic tricks in order to feed into the paranoia and fear of his “clients”. He offers them a problem, and then presents them with a quick psychological band-aid that will probably fade with time. Unfortunately, his first exorcism fails. What follows is the true horror story, as the ambiguity of Nell’s condition can not clearly be attributed to either possession or insanity. The question becomes: what is more frightening, a demon inhabiting an innocent girl, or a seemingly innocent girl committing extreme acts of violence and hatred?
The film unfortunately drops a few notches in the final act, not necessarily due to an unexpected turn of events, but in how they choose to portray them. While over the course of the film the documentarians become more involved in the events taking place, the way they are finally propelled into action inevitably feels cheap. It is mostly in how the framing and editing begins to suffer that makes the film suddenly unpalatable. This is most apparent in an extended Blair Witch Project-esque bouncing camera sequence. It is a disappointing direction due to how excellent the rest of the film is, and also because it fails to even be the least bit scary.
Despite the shaky ending, The Last Exorcism is a surprisingly invigorating horror film. Not only is it funny and scary, but it is blessed by the unique ability to get under your skin. Not a film to be quickly forgotten, it makes a good case for the potential in the “first person” horror and proves once again that a genre film with a brain will always be more effective than a mindless gore-fest.