The Last Exorcism
Unusually effective low-budget shaky-cam frightpic. Nobody famous in the cast. No real score, only a few ominous pulses and sound patterns. Bargain-basement effects. Slow to start. Yet damn engrossing.
Intentional ambivalence throughout, such that by the end you’re not sure the filmmakers are going to deliver. But they do. Granted, you may not like what they give you, but you have to admit they at least had the guts to commit in those all-important final moments. The more refined in the audience will be disappointed with that commitment, will want the film to stay “undeclared,” if you will. And serious students of horror (not necessarily an oxymoron) will want a lot more in the way of visual evidence. Oh well. Can’t please everyone. For those of us in the middle of the spectrum, the movie works just fine.
Most of you will have by now watched the trailers, so you basically know the entire story. But, just in case, here’s a nutshell. Glib but disillusioned preacher-charlatan in central Louisiana decides to retire from his patently fraudulent “casting out the devil” business and invites documentary film crew to record his “last exorcism”—of a supposedly possessed young woman out in the boondocks. You can guess the rest. What? You want it on a plate? Okay—the movie could have been titled The Rosemary’s Baby Project. Got it now?
The question, of course, is why this thing works. The answer isn’t because the film converts from psychological maybe-so to demonic definitely-yes in the last act. And it isn’t due to the healthy doses of mocking humor in the opening. Or even Ashley Bell’s (United States of Tara) startling performance as the possessed young woman Nell.
No, the success of the film rides almost entirely on Patrick Fabian’s (Gigantic) brilliant turn as Cotton Marcus, the facile and seemingly shallow evangelical minister cum disbelieving exorcist-for-hire. His car salesman’s charisma, his con man’s candor, his surprising flashes of depth and decency, and his on-screen growth are the foundation everything else rests upon. By the time he takes up his gimmick-laden, cheap magic act crucifix for real, you’re ready. You’ve seen it coming. You’ve felt it coming.
The rest of the small cast is right there with him, most notably industry veteran Louis Herthum (The Gates) as Nell’s tortured but strangely menacing father. With his rugged, heavily scarred looks, Herthum seems born to play stern, unyielding, usually doomed men. And he’s good at it.
German director Daniel Stamm (the highly regarded indie flick A Necessary Death) makes his wide-release debut with this film, and his lack of experience at the helm shows. The beginning drags, and overall the film often seems afraid to take a stand, to define itself.
Scripting team Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland (this fall’s upcoming The Virginity Hit) provide some laughs at the outset—as we learn about Reverend Marcus’s history with the evangelical church and with backyard exorcisms (a family tradition, it turns out). And they do a superb job drawing Marcus himself. But the story lags seriously on more than one occasion, usually at times when you can actually feel the writers struggling with whether to simply blurt it all out or stay mum. In these instances, it is only the excellent acting by the primaries, and the implied promise of a final pay-off, that keeps us interested.
That said, The Last Exorcism is considerably better than most modern horror fare. At less than an hour and a half, it’s refreshingly short. There are moments of genuine creepiness. The gore is kept to a blessedly bare minimum. The hand-held camera work is jerky enough to keep you on edge, but steady enough to make viewing pleasurable. The acting surpasses what we normally see in these movies.
And the closing images are truly striking.
U.S. Release Date: August 27, 2010
Director: Daniel Stamm
Screen writers: Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Running Time: 87 minutes