Last Exorcism, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/28/10 10:56:01

"A genuinely chilling story, right up until the end."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I've got an issue with "The Last Exorcism", but it's about as minor as one can be: It may be borne almost entirely out of my personal beliefs and one that only becomes an issue in the final minutes. Up until then, it's a cracking good faux documentary that manages the nifty trick of continually tightening the screws without overselling itself.

The film is presented to us as a documentary following Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a middle-aged Baton Rouge preacher. He's been preaching since he was a child, but he had a crisis of faith when his son was born deaf and he found himself trusting the doctors much more than the Lord. Like his father before him, he performed exorcisms, but recent news stories have made him decide to not only stop that practice, but expose it as a dangerous fraud. To do so, he and documentary filmmaker Iris (Iris Bahr) will answer one of his letters requesting help, filming the entire process. He chooses the case of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), whose father Louis (Louis Herthum) is attributing all manner of nasty things to a demon in her body. Cotton does his thing, but when Nell shows up at his hotel room that night in a strange delirium, he realizes that his work is far from done.

The hook for The Last Exorcism is presenting exorcists as little better than con artists at their best, and it's a good one. Typically, films involving exorcisms require the audience to at some point take the mythology of devils and demons as a given, but this one starts from a place of skepticism and spends most of its running time there. Co-writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland recognize that as soon as they reveal that Nell really is possessed by a demon, the gig is up, and the ambiguities that have been fueling not just the story, but the characterization, up until that point will be swept aside. Besides, they've got much worse things to fill the audience's head with than mere fallen angels.

The other thing that really makes the movie work is Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus. Though Cotton has grown cynical of his life's work, he's still a preacher at heart, charismatic and able to work a crowd (or a camera crew) as if by instinct; indeed, he almost can't help doing so. The other side of that is that he's genuinely concerned about other people; he goes well beyond what he has to do for the documentary in order to get Nell help, and we can see in Fabian's performance that it's not something he has to give a great deal of thought to. There's enjoyable uncertainty otherwise, though, as we see him struggle with the question of whether he has actually lost his faith or just grown disgusted with some of the ways that faith has been used. It is a great movie performance, as Fabian just inhabits the character.

The rest of the cast is quite good, too. We only see fleeting glimpses of Iris Bahr as the documentarian directing the movie, but she does well as a contrast and sounding board for Cotton. Ashley Bell is dead-on as Nell, captivating us quickly as a frightened country girl before shocking us by going different places in the possession scenes. Caleb Jones is also excellent as her brother, capturing a sort of instinctive distrust for city folk like Cotton before displaying a sort of grudging acceptance over time. And Louis Herthum is utterly believable in every role he must play as the father, as certain of his faith as Cotton was but not nearly so book-smart about it.

Director Daniel Stamm does a very nice job of slowly hiking up the tension. He eases us into the film's potentially cynical start, giving us the chance to mock the locals' superstition without meanly lingering on it. He's very good at making us feel uneasy about what's going on, as well as being able to make the most of the film's moments of savage violence. He's confident enough in his documentary-style filmmaking to let big moments play quietly rather than juicing them up, and he and cinematographer Zoltan Honti are very good at using the frequent low lighting to slowly reveal horrors.

I could have done without moments in the last sequence; as much as it works in terms of completing a journey for Cotton, it introduces a new element that can be seen as running counter to the tone and message that the film started with. Fortunately, Stamm and company are able to keep it from being the sort of misstep that undoes a lot of the good that had come before, and it's ambiguous enough that I can probably talk myself into being okay with it.

It's not nearly enough to make much of a dent in my enthusiasm for "The Last Exorcism", that's for sure. It's a film that contains a few genuine scares, and also wants its audience actively engaged rather than just feeling blind terror.

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