Last Exorcism, The (United States, 2010)

August 25, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Last Exorcism, The Poster

The Last Exorcism is one of those rare films where the marketing campaign is more interesting than the film it publicizes. The movie is clearly low-budget and, rather than spending big bucks in the traditional arenas, Lionsgate has elected to promote the movie almost exclusively via social networks and YouTube, and by word-of-mouth. It's the Snakes on a Plane approach. Admittedly, with the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle, that didn't work so well, but the stakes are lower here. The Last Exorcism doesn't have to make a ton of money to be profitable; it remains to be seen whether there will be enough buzz to put it over the top or whether the current of dissatisfaction evident in the audience at the screening I attended will result in a misfire.

When The Blair Witch Project was released, the primary reason for its success lay in the freshness of its approach. The Last Broadcast notwithstanding, the first-person vantage point was something new for the horror genre and, because The Blair Witch Project relegated most of its horror to an off-screen vantage and relied on a few well-orchestrated scares to keep the audience on edge, it became something of a phenomenon. Copycat films - and there have been a few over the years - generally haven't fared as well because they ignore the "less is more" approach of the original. With The Blair Witch Project, it isn't hard to believe you're lost in the woods with a group of clueless twentysomethings who may or may not be hunted/haunted by a supernatural entity. There is a sense of creeping dread. That factor in particular has been absent from the numerous Blair Witch derivatives, and The Last Exorcism is no exception. The movie comes across as more manipulative than scary. Perhaps the problem is that we've been exposed to too many of these low-budget "lost footage" fake documentaries for it to generate any true terror.

The Last Exorcism's setup isn't bad and, although the "action" takes forever to get going, there are some creepy scenes in the middle section. There's also a mystery about whether all the bad things are the result of a supernatural occurrence or whether we're dealing with a combination of psychotic human beings and religious nutjobs. Ultimately, The Last Exorcism might have worked better if it had left these questions unanswered. The resolution is not only anticlimactic, it's downright silly - to the point where the camera is rolling long after it should have been shut off. That's one problem with the entire subgenre - the difficulty of buying the idea that someone is still recording while he's running for his life. (Cloverfield featured the most egregious examples of this.) It's not a deal-breaker - suspension of disbelief is always a major requirement for even the most basic horror film - but the way it is handled in The Last Exorcism hurts (rather than helps) the production's verisimilitude.

The movie is presented as a documentary chronicling the "last exorcism" performed by famed evangelist and exorcist Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). He is accompanied by a crew of two: filmmaker Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) and her unseen (but occasionally heard) cameraman. During the introduction, Marcus reveals that he has lost his faith in God. He no longer believes and his exorcisms are bogus. He wants to get the whole process on film as a means of proving how much fakery is transpiring in the business of demonic banishment. The exorcism he chooses to have filmed involves a 16-year old girl, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), who lives in the middle of nowhere (rural Louisiana, to be precise) with her ultra-religious father, Louis (Louis Herthum), and her cynical brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones). Marcus' confidence erodes as strange events occur in the wake of his successful "exorcism" and he begins to wonder if he's dealing with a seriously demented situation or whether there might be something supernatural at work.

The movie is not without its share of low-tech, low-budget spookiness, most of which is concentrated in the middle (of three) acts. Until the end, The Last Exorcism keeps the majority of the horror elements low-key. There's not a lot of blood and gore (hence, the PG-13 rating). The most freaky sights are Nell's neck twisting at impossible angles and her wide eyes staring vacantly into space. Perhaps the most unsettling scene is the one in which she appears in Marcus' hotel room dressed only in a nightgown and appearing catatonic. This is the point at which we entertain one of three possibilities about her: (1) she is possessed by a demon, (2) she is a deranged stalker/killer, (3) she has been abused by her father or brother and they are responsible for all the bad things that are happening.

The cast is effective, with everyone sliding believably into their roles. For the most part, these are professional actors; however, they are not familiar faces nor do they bear famous names. Their filmographies list a lot of guest spots on television shows, so they have enough experience to be able to perform convincingly in front of the camera but not so much exposure that they ruin the illusion. Lead Patrick Fabian boasts an impressive list of credits, having appeared in everything from Big Love to Veronica Mars to 24, with a few minor movie parts sprinkled in, but he only appears vaguely familiar. He sells Marcus as a credible individual, which is critical to The Last Exorcism not coming across as a bad parody.

Like most entries into this burgeoning sub-genre, The Last Exorcism plays better when watched with a small group of friends in front of a TV at midnight than it does in a movie theater. The more intimate setting heightens the "realistic" elements of the fake camera footage. I suspect the poorly-paced first half also plays better at home; it's organic to the story but impatient audience members may begin to grumble, damaging the fragile mood constructed by director Daniel Stamm. Given the constraints placed upon him, Stamm has probably wrung the most he can from a style that has lost much of its effectiveness through overexposure. His attempt to provide a sense of closure via a contrived, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion is a flaw, but the greater issue may be thinking that what worked for The Blair Witch Project can be effective more than a decade later.

Here's an example of The Last Exorcism's marketing, employing Chatroulette:

Last Exorcism, The (United States, 2010)

Director: Daniel Stamm
Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley
Screenplay: Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland
Cinematography: Zoltan Honti
Music: Nathan Barr
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2010-08-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1