I’ve never been one to believe in the hocus-pocus, piece of schlock that is the Bible. I’m sorry if this offends any fanatics, but it’s just how I feel. Although I was raised as a Catholic, even as a child I found the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and God’s seven-day creation plan to be just plain absurd. Of course, this meant that I found church sermons to be boring, useless, and ultimately pathetic as priests preached about how one should love God more than their children — it just sickened me. That being said, I’m not quite convinced that there is a Lucifer either. To me, the demon-lord and Hell were just meant to oppress/control a nation’s people when the law wasn’t enough to keep order. But as the non-believer that I am, I am proud to say that I proclaim my “allegiance” to God at least twice a day: If I’m surprised and whisper “Oh my fucking God . . .” or when I’m having my daily fit of frustration and I shamelessly scream “Jesus fucking Christ!”
But the idea of Satan and his minions possessing people is quite scary and thus spawned a technique known as “exorcism,” in which a priest or rabbi comes and expels the demonic presence through a series of rituals and prayers. Now exorcism seems like a scary profession. I mean, these guys are paid to deal with deranged lunatics for days on end and what’s worse is that the religious figures actually believe that their “patients” are victim to an otherworldly power. But Satan spawned exorcism, so what has exorcism spawned? Countless horror films — of which includes one of the best horror films ever made: The Exorcist.
Now Daniel Stamm plans to leave his mark on the subgenre with his The Last Exorcism, which is shot in a The Blair Witch Project-esque documentary style. The film which is written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland remains an excellent thriller (notice I didn’t use the word “horror” but I’ll explain later), which not only sports fabulous performances by Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell, but also surprisingly entertaining and tense storytelling.
The story of The Last Exorcism is as follows: Reverend Cotton Marcus (Fabian) is the crossroads of atheism and faith. Following a botched exorcism (which he did not perform) that results in one dead child, Marcus questions his pledge to uphold the word of the Lord. But Cotton plans to expose the “hoax” that he believes exorcism to be and thus he and his film crew journey to a small farming town in Louisiana, which is plagued by illiteracy and poverty (which Marcus believes is the “breeding ground for demons”). In addition, the town also sports rumors of psychopaths and cults — definitely not a good vacation destination.
Of course, Marcus and his crew arrive at a small farm where they meet the father Louis and child Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), who is the one in need of the exorcism. Louis, who seems to be caring in the beginning, turns out to be overprotective and to quote Nell’s brother Caleb, “a superstitious drunk.” But Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones — anyone else find it lazy that they didn’t even change the character’s first name from that of the actors?) isn’t a token child and Nell explains to Cotton that he turned violent and hateful towards God following his mother’s untimely death. Now Nell is homeschooled and maintains a childlike innocence about her but that quickly changes when Cotton begins to realize that his faux-exorcism isn’t quite going to cut it this time around.
One problem that I had with The Last Exorcism is that it didn’t have any “jump out of your seat” moments. It’s expected: The sudden orchestral music, the blood/gore, and the demonic voices. In essence, they’re elementary horror tactics, but what save the film are its characters, and that is why I classify it as a thriller and not a full-fledged horror extravaganza.
Cotton is an immensely troubled protagonist, and Fabian plays off the charisma and the showmanship of the character perfectly. Now Cotton is a fraud, he doesn’t believe in demons and just performs exorcisms because he believes them to be “a service that needs to be done in a certain way.” He constantly questions his faith and uses props in his exorcisms in order to create theatrics for his clients to believe that he is actually a man of God. What bothered me about Cotton’s character is how the screenwriters manipulate his entire persona towards the third act in order to preach a surprisingly pro-religious stance. But if you look at the tagline, which is “Believe in Him,” it becomes quite clear that this is an expertly disguised religious film (besides the entire exorcism fiasco because I believe a film about Satan is not exactly classified as religious in the way that Passion of the Christ is). Just look at it this way, throughout the film Cotton becomes progressively more accepting of the faith and this is just a staple for Sunday school teachings — a man who forced with evil embraces the warmth of Jesus. I honestly did not appreciate the message, but it did not detract me from actually enjoying the film or its ending for that matter.
The other performance that I praise is Ashley Bell. As Nell, she remains undeniably creepy even when she plays the sweet teenager who is stuck in the 1950s mindset and who laughs uncontrollably when Cotton says she looks just like her mother. On top of that, Bell, who without the use of computers and special effects, does an incredible job at contorting her body into nearly impossible positions. It honestly freaked the shit out of me one second, but at the next second, made me want to enlist in yoga classes.
The Last Exorcism isn’t the best film. In fact, it’s extremely rough and unpolished. And as for the entire marketing scheme, which was aimed at the hardcore horror fan, it totally backfires. The film excels in storytelling and character development (except for Cotton in the third act), and isn’t really scary.