The Last Exorcism

He's a little taller when he's standing on his pulpit.

Television ads for horror films have a sameness about them that I find misleading.  Nearly every horror film ad I’ve seen in the last few years tries to sell the  film as a thrill ride of terror, which is a total and complete lie.  Not every horror film is a thrill ride of terror.  I understand why distributors do this; they want desperately to capture the youth market. Understanding this, I know that a slick commercial made up of  freaky quick cuts pushing a film as a thrill ride of terror, but tells you nothing else about the film, is a sign that the movie is probably going to suck (i.e. The Happening, Legion and 2012).  Nice one, Hollywood! Way to shoot yourself in the foot with the Captain!

So when The Last Exorcism came out I saw the ad,  which was of the “it’s a thrill ride of terror” variety, on TV and  thought, “Huh, that looks like a cynical attempt to separate teens from their parent’s money.  I’ll wait for it to hit DVD.”  Shortly after its release I heard The Last Exorcism reviewed on one of my favorite podcasts; actually I got as far as the recap of the plot before skipping over the rest.  I didn’t want to spoil it; it sounded promising.

Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a natural salesman.  He could have sold cars.  He could have sold insurance.  He followed in his father’s footsteps and sold God.  A prodigy faith healer and slinger of  The Word, Cotton eventually turns his father’s tent revival ministry into Big Jesus.  A good shepherd guides his flock and occasionally a shepherd will fleece his flock too.

He didn’t see anything wrong with staging exorcisms and the like.  In the end he was reaffirming the stricken person’s faith while using the power of suggestion to help them and making a few bucks in the bargain.  It was all good  until a crisis of conscience – precipitated by his son being saved by the miracle of medicine and a boy dying at the hands of a negligent “exorcist” – led him to want to expose Bible black charlatans, who claim to exorcise demons, as frauds.   He’s well versed in all the techniques of casting out demons and agrees to demonstrate his stagecraft for a documentary film by doing one last exorcism.

Cotton gets a letter pleading for his help in exorcising a demon from Louis Sweetzer, a farmer in rural Louisiana, and agrees to take the case for the documentary with the idea of staging a fake supernatural event, collecting some cash and beating it out of Dodge.  He and his crew roll into the Sweetzer farm to find Nell, the possessed daughter, who seems pretty normal considering that she lives in rural Louisiana with a father who is nuttier than an ice cream sundae and a brother who is actively hostile to everything his father stands for.  Mrs. Sweetzer has been dead for a few years, for which Mr. Sweetzer blames the doctors who were treating his wife.  Forsaking science and reason, he turns to religion and superstition for guidance.

Cotton decides to go ahead and stage his exorcism complete with fun house special effects and old time chutzpah.  He figures that the placebo effect will kick in to help the girl, the film crew will get their footage and he’ll get a few parting dollars.  That’s not how it’s going to go down, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have much of a movie.  I’m sure that you can guess what happens next.  Yes! It goes there and it takes a few unplanned detours too, which I don’t want to reveal.  The idea of pulling a sort of reverse Scooby-Doo, where the man in the mask is trying to scare everyone turns out to actually be a monster isn’t exactly a novel idea, but it’s entertaining when it works.  Does it work here?

The Last Exorcism isn’t the terror filled hay-ride to Hell that you’d expect from the promotional spots, but it’s no schlub either.  There are some very tense scenes and a few good scares if the audible gasps of fear by the audience are any measure.  Director Daniel Stamm had to walk a  fine line between maintaining the documentary feel of the film and developing an appropriately creepy atmosphere.  The documentary/found footage format might have been dispensed with all together; it just wasn’t integral to the movie in same way it was to The Blair Witch Project or even Paranormal Activity.  Atmosphere-wise the film, set in rural Louisiana, could have been bucket loads more creepy.

The performances were good, especially Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer.  You had to really feel for the poor girl.   Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus is totally believable as a deeply conflicted swindler who is wanting to make good on his failings.  Louis Herthum is unnerving as the unbalanced Louis Sweetzer.  The rest of the cast is okay.

There isn’t much in the way of special effects.  The scenes where Ashley Bell bends or snaps into painful and impossible positions are all her according to IMDB.

The script could have used a bit more polish.  I found Cotton’s rationale for doing what he was doing a little weak and undramatic.  Giving up a lifetime of religious hucksterism and it’s justification just doesn’t evaporate overnight.  On the Biblical scale of being pushed, Cotton’s tragedies are small.  The writers should have gone full Job on him.  The plot twists (which I’m not going to give away) could have been transitioned with a bit more elegance (take my word on it).

I found the film entertaining, but a little bit thin; it could have easily been a made-for-TV movie, instead of a theatrical release.  I took Housecat with me to see it.  She watched large chunks of the movie from behind her fingers.  The audience gasped at the “scary parts.”  Your mileage may vary.

Patrick Fabian
Ashley Bell
Iris Bahr
Louis Herthum

Daniel Stamm

Andrew Gurland
Huck Botko

Two and a half Vincents out of five.

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