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Review: The Last Exorcism

By  · Published on August 27th, 2010

The Last Exorcism is the story of a Louisiana pastor called to the aid of a family living way out in the sticks. The family is aware that Cotton, the pastor, has been performing exorcisms for many years and they are in need of his special talents. The daughter of the family, Nell, has been acting so strangely of late that her father is convinced that she is possessed by the devil. Cotton sees this as an opportunity to reveal the enormous hoax that is church-sanctioned exorcism and brings along a camera crew to document both the flimsiness of the family’s possession claims and the charade of the exorcism ceremony. What he discovers in that tiny backwoods town is something far more real and far more terrifying than he is equipped to handle.

Calling The Last Exorcism the best exorcism film since The Exorcist is not only a mouthful, but that seemingly flattering moniker may be more of a backhanded compliment than the film deserves. I for one wholly endorse this, admittedly, sensational claim but I don’t think it’s one the film should wear as a badge of honor (whether the praise come from me or someone of much greater note and worth). The fact is that exorcism films have been few and far between since Linda Blair first showered us in green, soupy terror in 1973. Of the meager handfuls that have cropped up in these near forty years hence, only a smidgen of them have seen theatrical release. Of that lot, there’s really not much to sing about; it’s easy to be best in breed when surrounded by mutts.

What The Last Exorcism brings back to the exorcist film is an honest-to-God (pun) crisis of faith exemplified in a protagonist who is both sympathetic and spiritually pitiful. You rally behind Cotton despite the fact that he is just as much a charlatan as the ecumenical hierarchy he reproaches. While Cotton’s genuine disenfranchisement with the powers that be and his willingness to air the dirty laundry of a centuries-old facade is why we don’t hate him, the visible ghost of his former passion and the palpable anguish he exudes at losing his faith is why we love him. This multi-faceted character shines through what could have easily been another gimmick horror film; a testament to Patrick Fabian’s stellar performance.

Much like Linda Blair’s Regan, our bedeviled female vessel in The Last Exorcism is a sweet innocent; her last name is SWEETzer for crying out loud. But the difference between Regan and Nell is that where Regan was a girl of middle-upper class privilege who is blindsided by this adversity, Nell lives in arguably the poorest part of the country. This only matters in that it creates an interesting character who clearly has known pain and suffering in her life prior to being the host of the evil one. I felt for her even more than I did for Regan because despite what has clearly been a rough life, she remains affable right up until the devil inhabits her. Ashley Bell does a great job bringing this across and I think it’s what makes the performance of Louis Herthum, who plays her father, so heart-wrenching.

When cinema verite horror is done well, it is wickedly effective; shattering the safety of the fourth wall and fostering a whole new level of fright. When done as a gimmick, like 3-D, it often comes across as white noise and the film instantly brands itself as forgettable. I feel the difference lies in how much craft goes into to all the elements outside the “shaky camera” and how inextricable to the story it is to see the film through the camera lens. Would it have been possible to make this a more traditional narrative about a pastor performing an exorcism on a young girl? Yes, but then it would have been indistinguishable from the half dozen other exorcism films since The Exorcist. Instead, the story is about a man determined to prove that exorcisms are bogus in order that he may once and for all assuage his guilt over losing his faith. The camera lens through which we see the film is his vindication and ultimately the key to his rebirth when the crisis of faith hits the point of no return.

As to the actual possession stuff, The Last Exorcism is remarkably reserved. When I learned of the central conceit of the film I thought for sure that they would amp up the jump scares in an effort to fool audiences into experiencing a more severe scare. I’ve seen recent horror films employ this tactic and essentially what they are doing is masturbating the fear response without providing actual quality. But The Last Exorcism mostly relies more on unsettling, lingering visuals and methodical physical transformations which all harmonize to create something truly unnerving. The finale is a bit more grandiose than I had expected but despite its over-the-top appearance, I’ll be damned if it didn’t work.

The Upside: Effective horror film that elevates an already played-out gimmick and uses it to create something unique.

The Downside: Not going to be your bag if you’ve been jaded by the slate of chintzy exorcism films of the last decade.

On the Side: The film was produced by Eli Roth who has been quoted as saying The Exorcist is the scariest horror film he had ever seen.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.