Review: The Last Exorcism is a True Exercise in Great Horror
by Jeremy Kirk
August 31, 2010
Amidst the bland cavalcade of stagnant horror movies, there is one sub-genre (or film style, depending on how you view it) that doesn't seem to ever be tiring. No matter how stale the narratives get, the style of the mockumentary or "found footage" horror film hasn't hit the cinematic brick wall yet. Sure, there are those who complain about it, that it's overused or that it's never as effective as straight, smooth filmmaking. Yet, since The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in 1999, there have been films of this ilk that have consistently found their audience and brought out the best in fright the style has to offer.
The latest such film that rides right along that path is The Last Exorcism, a faux documentary style horror film that offers genuine scares, highly engrossing atmosphere, and a story that is as far from cookie cutter as you can get.
It's about much more than a documentary crew wanting to cover a priest's latest exorcism. The priest at the center of the film is Cotton Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian. He has performed over a hundred exorcisms on people who feel their bodies are being inhabited by demons or even the devil himself. The one thing about Cotton, though, is that he doesn't believe in demonic possession. He is a priest who, after the birth and eventual poor health of his son, is finding it harder and harder to believe in the higher power he so vehemently preaches. When it is learned that people may, in fact, be getting harmed from the fake exorcisms being performed, he decides it is time to shelve the holy water, hang up the cross, and allow a film crew to document just how he does it.
This is all built up in the film's first quarter, and it sets an incredible tone for the characters that are to be portrayed in the film. Nothing horrific occurs in the opening, and, if you didn't know precisely what film you were watching, you would swear you were watching a real documentary about a man who decides it is time to move on from the life he has been living.
Director Daniel Stamm and the screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland do a fine job building Cotton's character up. Likewise, Fabian is completely solid in his portrayal here. Cotton is a character you sympathize with. You understand why he does what he does and why he feels he must come clean to the world about it. Even if you don't agree with his motives, you still have no qualms understanding them.
The real horrors come later as Cotton and the film crew travel to the titular last exorcism. It involves a young girl living with her father and brother deep in the back woods of Louisiana. They are a particularly devout family, so they have are fully in Cotton's hold as he goes through the motions of performing the exorcism on the girl. Then, after everything seems to go as planned, the real horrors begin.
The Last Exorcism is a horror film that utilizes both the commonplace jump scares but also one that builds a terrific atmosphere. The setting is muggy. The homes are the broken down homes of Louisiana you might see sitting in the tall grass as you travel the back roads of the deep South. It all feels real, so, once the scares begin, whether you know full well it is all made up or not, you are left unnerved and unsure of what is about to happen next.
Stamm and crew continuously move the story forward. It never gets bogged down in a swamp of needless exposition or revisiting of the same scare over and over again. Very early into the last half of the film, we realize full well the dangers involved in staying in the house and who the culprit is behind those dangers. In one of the film's more terrifying moments, the young girl, played to unsettling effect by Ashley Bell, takes the crew's camera with her on one of her late night escapades. What transpires is entirely horrifying yet cleverly shot in what it shows, what it doesn't show, what it keeps in full focus, and what it lets stay blurred out just enough. It's without a doubt the scariest moment of a film filled with heart-pounding terrors.
With an excellent setup, solid build throughout, and some of the best uses of atmosphere and sound seen in recent horror films, you would hope for a breathtaking yet absolutely revelatory ending. Unfortunately, that's not found here. It's on paper. What transpires really isn't the issue. It's the way it is presented, almost matter of factly that provides very little impact. When Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity had their final moments, they were shocking yet logical endings that left you completely uncomfortable, perfect for the drive home late at night. That same feeling is missing in The Last Exorcism, and, sadly, the best moments of the film are buried deep within the confines of the middle section.
It's also hard with these films to understand the camera man's motives. Sure, they're a film crew. They are filming a documentary. However, once someone begins chasing you with a shotgun or an ax, it's probably not the best time to worry about your Best Documentary Oscar acceptance speech, put down the damn camera, and run. Not found here, but, for the sake of capturing everything on film, it's almost forgivable.
The Last Exorcism is a breath of fresh air for horror fans, a highly effective thriller that offers great scares, great atmosphere, and presents a story that is much deeper than your average slasher or ghost story. It's a thrilling good time that makes you turn on the lights in your house once you get home from the theater, an effect that hasn't been found since… well, the last found footage movie about demons and exorcisms. It's a style of film making that is still in full swing, but, as long as the scares and story continue to hit as accurately as The Last Exorcism, it's not one I want exorcised out of the film industry for a long while.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10