Daniel Stamm makes his impressive directorial debut with an intriguing albeit anticlimactic tale of exorcism which doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the genre, but is presented in an original way which undoubtedly puts it above the majority.
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has performed more ‘exorcisms’ than he can recall; none of which were actual removal of demons from a human, but a whole charade of his showmanship that he perfected whilst preaching. Of course, the exorcised don’t know this; the apparently posessed person is duped into believing that he’s actually extracting a demonic force from them: he rigs the room to include shaking beds, moving pictures, even deep growls to aid his fraudulent ceremony. As selfish as it sounds, Cotton only does it to support his family, including a son who was born prematurely and needs hearing aid replacements regularly. It’s because of his sons almost tragic birth that he had a crisis of faith, but continued to preach because he was so good at it.
But after reading of an exorcism gone wrong which resulted in a boy of 10 being suffocated, Cotton sets out to expose the practice for the sham that it is. Still receiving requests to perform them, he picks out an envelope and decides to take a documentary crew with him to film his final ‘performance’, which turns out to be the apparent possession of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell). However, it soon becomes apparent that this case may be far more serious than any of them could have ever imagined.
The decision to film this “handheld” pays off massively, as the atmosphere and mood is increased far more than it would have been if traditionally filmed, because admittedly the basic story isn’t anything new. But when it’s given to us like the events are real, everything just feels so fresh. The easy option for a horror and handheld filmed movie would be to have the shocks come right to the camera, and while this does happen infrequently, the real chills are from long pans that build up tension, then catch you completely off guard with glimpses of Nell or other events.However, the fact that incidental music (or any music at all for that matter) is used doesn’t quite fit with the whole feel of realism, and it would have benefited if the audience didn’t have an idea when something potentially shocking was about to happen.
Relative newcomer to the movie lead role, Patrick Fabien is a natural in front of camera. During the opening scenes, he keeps the audience smiling due to his sermons about almost anything, but also reveals his emotional side when talking about his sons ill health and the times when his faith was in jeopardy. It’s this balance that makes the introduction so striking, and crucial in making us care about him for the remainder of the film. Ashley Bell puts in an excellent performance as Nell, who could have easily gone OTT on the role but her writings and screaming are wholly believable.
The chemistry between Cotton and Nell is fantastic, although I couldn’t help but notice that Cotton always seemed to know what to do, even when his usual techniques of a fake exorcism don’t work. Furthermore, he never really acknowledges that it could actually be a supernatural occurrence, putting her behaviour down to a troubled few years that she’s had.
The Last Exorcism isn’t the jump out of your seat shocker I had expected. It is perfectly paced, with a beautifully slow burning first act and a thoroughly entertaining second act. So it’s incredibly frustrating that the last 20 minutes are frantically rushed to an almost irritatingly confusing finale. Now that I’ve had time to think it over, I have a theory of what may have happened, but it’s a shame that this approach was taken. It feels like a totally different film, and doesn’t flow with the impressive build up. Nonetheless, it’s because of this build up that the climax can be forgiven, and I actually wanted to think about everything that happened, piecing it together bit by bit.
One of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of 2010, The Last Exorcism will most likely be negatively reviewed for its misleading marketing, which will attract teens looking for a quick, forgettable scare. When in reality, this is a more thoughtful and technically complex effort, combining the well trodden narrative path of exorcism stories, with a unique approach to telling us about it.