REVIEW: Last Exorcism Starts Strong But Can't Close the Pseudo-Doc Deal
Don't be fooled: despite the fact that producer Eli Roth has stacked his name above the title on posters and advertisements, The Last Exorcism has absolutely nothing in common with Roth's adolescent torture-porn Hostel franchise. And despite a titular invocation of the original The Exorcist (with an implied promise to put a tourniquet on any more sequels), Daniel Stamm's film bears little resemblance to William Friedkin's moody, head-spinning freak-out. Instead it's something more curious, and quite welcome: a deft, intelligent, pseudo-documentary thriller disguised as a horror movie. Until it concedes to standard slash-and-rush tactics in the final act, The Last Exorcism manages to be scary without resorting to cheap special effects or gore. It's not as good as it could have been, but it's so much better than expected.
The film declares its premise from the opening shot, with camera and cameraman visibly reflected in the bathroom mirror as subject Reverend Cotton Marcus (a charismatic Patrick Fabian) looks himself over. We're placed squarely and convincingly into the realm of documentary film, and invited to maintain two flawed points of view: seeing through the limited eye of the camera and relating to a preening protagonist.
Thankfully, Cotton's self-regard is matched by a quick wit and an ingratiating fatalism, which, by reality TV standards, makes him almost too good to be true. The son of a legendary Mississippi preacher, he's a natural performer, effective evangelist, and in-demand exorcist, but he's lost his way as a believer. He realizes it doesn't matter what he says so long as he sounds convincing (he proves his point by rattling off a recipe for banana bread amidst a furious sermon, and the congregation hears it as gospel). Responding to one last request for his exorcism services, he brings the film crew along to see his trickery in action. "I want to expose the exorcisms for the scam that they are," he says.
But as in police procedurals and war pictures, the last day on the job never goes as planned. The crew drives deep into the Louisiana sticks to meet Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a devout farmer who's convinced that his teenage daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is possessed by a demon, and responsible for a now nightly slaughtering of livestock. Though something's clearly amiss with Nell, and, for that matter, with her mean-eyed brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), Cotton puts on an exorcism show to restore sanity to the house. He rigs a bedroom with wires and speakers, gives the four-poster bed a good shake, makes smoke pour out of a crucifix, and walks away with a thick wad of Sweetzer's cash.
But that night Nell mysteriously shows up at the film crew's motel, her sustained gaze and excellent posture clearly signaling a devil inside. Her arrival doesn't come as a surprise, but it does unsettle. More than a third of the film has passed without any evidence of real danger, which is long enough to persuade us that Cotton might have it right. But we're not actually free of the unknown, and Nell makes us confront a reality that's beyond what the camera can process for us. Cotton's skepticism keeps our fear at bay, and when one erodes the other rushes in.
As the film returns to the Sweetzer property it drifts into more familiar territory. Whether or not she's possessed, it becomes apparent that Nell is also dealing with earthly complications, causing Cotton and the suddenly very visible documentarian, Iris (Iris Bahr), to become more involved, less rational. Every member of the family becomes a potential menace, every room of the run-down house becomes a prison, and every sharp object happened upon becomes a weapon.
More troubling, the documentary conceit starts to break down, with Stamm making too many concessions to genre expectations, telegraphing shocks with a suddenly zoom-happy camera, splattering the lens with cat blood, slipping screechy Psycho strings onto the soundtrack and letting action degrade into a string of very bad (and familiarly implausible) decisions. Usually that's all part of the fun, but the film had raised a higher bar for itself, making a reversion to standard horror tropes particularly dispiriting. The same goes for its whole-hog acceptance of the supernatural, which it had initially, and effectively, clouded in uncertainty.
Yet Stamm, a young German filmmaker whose only previous feature was another pseudo-doc called A Necessary Death, seems like a real talent, keeping things on a human scale even as the narrative spirals into absurdities. His film has more in common with a fact-based exorcist tale like Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem than it does with the levitated Linda Blair chronicles. Like The Blair Witch Project, an obvious and worthy reference point, The Last Exorcism takes its premise seriously, approaching the docu-realist format not as an affected style, but as an essential way of seeing, and a particularly terrifying means of losing all sense of control.