Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Jones, Tony Bentley
“I’m not comfortable that we’re in a house with someone who’s doing pictures of my head being chopped off.” (Daniel, The Last Exorcism)
In most exorcism movies, a priest has to convince a skeptical parent that their child doesn’t have mental issues and an exorcism ritual is needed to save them.
The Last Exorcism is interesting because it does the complete opposite. Instead, it’s the priest who doesn’t have faith in the ritual and it’s the parent who’s adamant it should take place.
Reverend Cotton Marcus lives in Louisiana with his wife and son. Although his family has been performing exorcisms for generations, Cotton knows it’s all a scam and has begun to question his faith.
When his own disabled son was saved from death, Cotton attributed it to science, not God, and it’s this revelation that has encouraged him to think about leaving the church and getting another job.
Or, as he puts it: “I used to want to have a TV ministry. I thought that’d be cool. And now, frankly, all I really want is health insurance.”
Before he packs it all in though, Cotton wants to do one final exorcism, chosen at random from the numerous requests he gets in the mail. And he wants to bring a documentary crew with him so he can reveal how it’s really done and expose the whole thing as a big smelly fraud.
The request he chooses comes from Louis Sweetzer, a farmer who claims his daughter Nell is possessed. Cue an elaborate (and faked) exorcism routine, complete with speakers placed under the bed, paintings pulled off the wall with thin wire and a rigged crucifix designed to emit smoke.
Satisfied that he’s ‘cured’ Nell by, in reality, convincing her that the demon she only thought was possessing her has gone, Cotton heads back to his hotel room for a good night’s sleep before heading home.
Trouble is, in the middle of the night, Cotton wakes up to find Nell in his hotel room, and after taking her to the hospital for a psychiatric check then taking her home, weird shit starts to happen.
She attacks her brother, slicing his face open. She draws a picture of the family cat being killed, claims to know nothing about it, then kills the cat the next night. She steals the camera in the middle of the night and films herself contorting and making weird noises.
Could it be that Nell really is possessed by a demon after all, or is her mind in fact troubled by a past that holds some dark secrets?
Either way, Cotton had better find out soon because Nell’s drawn more pictures and this time they’re of him and the camera crew on fire and cut into pieces. Fun!
Being a horror film released in the last five years it should as no surprise that The Last Exorcism is shot ‘found footage’ style, because apparently that’s the law now.
That said, it does a much better job with it than most films, going down the Blair Witch path of setting up the documentary aspect first and doing vox pop interviews with ‘ordinary’ members of the public (in reality they’re actors too but you genuinely wouldn’t know it).
Probably the best tribute I could pay to the cast is that until all the weird stuff starts happening I would completely believe it if you told me this was a real documentary.
The performances are immaculate, with enough stammering and imperfections to make it feel like these are normal, real people giving off-the-cuff interviews. Props and such, then, to Patrick Fabian who does a great job managing to make a fraudulent priest genuinely likeable.
The real star of the show, however, is the hypermobile Ashley Bell as the fantastically creepy Nell.
When the ‘demon’ starts taking over and she goes into all manner of horrible contortions, it’s a testament to her that these were all executed herself without the need of a double or CGI.
There are a couple of issues with the film, however. Most notably, although it tries its very best it never gets truly scary. It speaks volumes when the exorcism scenes here are still nowhere near as powerful as those in The Exorcist, a film 37 years its senior.
At times it feels like it’s just chucking in occasional creepy occurrences – weird voices on a tape, pentagrams drawn on a wall – because they’re tried and tested and it thinks that’ll be enough to do the job. But it really isn’t.
And then there’s the ending. Obviously I’m not going to spoil anything, but it’s dopey as fuck. Given the cast spent the best part of 90 minutes delivering authentic, truly engaging performances, to end it in such an over-the-top, nonsensical manner is a bit jarring.
The Last Exorcism is worth a watch. Consistently high quality performances from the entire cast save this one from being a generic found footage horror and make it a worthwhile endeavour.
Think of it as less of an exorcism film – there are only a few real scenes of this nature in it – and more of a psychological thriller in which we try to find out what’s going on in the mind of a young girl, and you’ll have a fun time with it.
HOW CAN I SEE IT?
The Last Exorcism is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray (UK DVD, UK Blu-ray, US DVD, US Blu-ray). Brits who fancy streaming it can get it on Amazon Prime Instant Video as part of their subscription package – find it here – along with its sequel (review soon). Alternatively, you can buy or rent it from Blinkbox.
SHOW ME THE TRAILER: