“Exorcism is alive and well,” the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) declares near the start of The Last Exorcism, then recites a stream of facts and figures to prove the procedure continues to be practiced around the world. Marcus is a former evangelist who doesn’t really believe in demons or possession, but he’s happy to oblige anyone willing to pay him loads of cash to rid a loved one of visits from Satan.
The members of Marcus’ congregation in Baton Rouge adore him, even though he often mocks them in sermons without their noticing. He’s a cynical man of God, proud of his hucksterism and accomplishments, and he hires a documentary crew to follow him to a farm in rural Louisiana where a father (Louis Herthum) is convinced his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) has been possessed.
Shot in the mock-documentary style of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism uses a lot of shaky-cam cinematography and direct asides to the camera to give it a sense of realism. We know from the outset that Marcus’ theory about demonic possession’sû being a myth is about to be proven wrong, but director Daniel Stamm takes a slow-burn approach, allowing the tension to mount steadily. The devil is kept off stage while plausible explanations for Nell’s strange behavior pile up (among them: the possibility she’s been the victim of sexual abuse).
Eventually, though, Marcus’ homemade special-effects gear, which is designed to convince his customers he’s done his job, can’t explain away the girl’s increasingly erratic and violent outbursts. The Last Exorcism is initially intriguing, because the performances are convincing enough to make you buy into the this-is-really-happening feel, and there are unsettling, creepy little touches throughout, such as the presence of Nell’s younger brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), sweet-faced, smiling and not nearly so nice as he appears.
But the more hellish the story gets, the sillier and less involving the movie becomes. Like other films in the genre, The Last Exorcism uses the documentary gimmick to build a sense of dread, often relying on what you don’t see as much as what the camera captures. But when Stamm finally goes for broke and tries to scare you, the result is akin to a cheesy 1970s drive-in picture, and the ending is so anti-climactic and thoroughly telegraphed that the film ultimately feels like a burn. The Last Exorcism is just another in a long line of movies that prove that if you try to go up against The Exorcist, or even just invoke its spirit, you are going to lose.
Cast: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley.
Director: Daniel Stamm.
Screenwriters: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland.
Producers: Eric Newman, Eli Roth, Marc Abraham.
A Lionsgate release. Running time: 90 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, gore, intense depictions of demonic tomfoolery.