The Last Exorcism (2010)

30 Aug

At least two of the people in this picture are not what they appear to be.

I’ll be upfront here and say this is a movie deserving of its considerable buzz. Presenting a new take on a subgenre that tends to cliche is difficult enough, but “The Last Exorcism” manages to through its remarkable performances and slow-building atmosphere. That said, part of the reason this film is generating talk is that it is divisive. This film won’t please everyone.

“The Last Exorcism” adopts a mockumentary style to tell the story of Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a Deep South preacher and exorcist who has decided to hang up his cross. He tells the camera crew, unflinchingly, about how his recent crisis of faith coupled with news stories of children killed during exorcisms has prompted him to retire. This one last exorcism, he says, is to expose the scam for what it truly is in the hopes of saving lives.

But Nell Sweetzer’s (Ashley Bell) case turns out to be more difficult than he anticipated. When she appears in his hotel room after his successful “exorcism,” he becomes concerned there is more going on at the Sweetzer farm than meets the eye. As facts get nastier and Nell’s outbursts grow more chilling, Marcus is forced to ask difficult questions and face a few demons of his own in his quest to save the girl.

“The Last Exorcism” builds tension slowly by gradually upping the creepy factor throughout the course of the film. At first, Rev. Marcus’s argument holds ultimate sway; it isn’t difficult at all to imagine exorcism as a “service” for those with a lot of belief in God but not much belief in mental illness. But it’s remarkable how quickly Marcus starts to seem as if he’s the one stubbornly refusing to face the truth. To its credit, the movie develops its plot wisely and never offers an easy out. Just when it seems like the action will all wrap up into a (predictably) neat little package, something else goes awry. In this way, “The Last Exorcism” is absolutely not like many other demon films. It’s a subtle tactic, but by making it impossible to choose a side, the film keeps the audience off kilter.

Ashley Bell is scary good.

That feeling of  unease at not being able to understand what’s happening goes a long way in building dread, and director Daniel Stamm is wise to let this simmer. The actual scares are pretty tame on paper, but the movie’s fantastic pacing, minimalist score and sense of immediacy really serve to amp up the fear factor. And speaking of scares, don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you; there’s plenty here to keep your heart rate up. The handheld filming style really draws the audience into the action, but it’s used judiciously and (thankfully) never veers into nausea-inducing territory.

This film wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it is without the standout performances from its two leads: Fabian as the conflicted Cotton Marcus and Bell as the tortured Nell Sweetzer. Fabian balances on a line between charming and smarmy for much of the action. That he never tips solely into either direction is a mark of his balanced and measured portrayal of a man coping with heavy internal conflict. Bell’s full commitment to the rigors of her role is jaw-dropping. She’s able to give her character just the right amount of ambiguity, and her little touches elevate her performance well beyond the norm for the genre. The acting in these sorts of pseudo-documentary films can be really hit-or-miss, but the cast of “The Last Exorcism” succeed in making their characters seem real.

The ending seems to be the focus of much of criticism of this film. I’ll go on record as saying I don’t have a problem with it. My heart was definitely pounding the entire final fifteen minutes or so, and I was pleased with the end, but I’m fully aware that not everyone will be. Not everyone in my theater showing was, although I would say they were the minority.

While it isn’t the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen, “The Last Exorcism” is notable for the fresh spin it puts on the possession genre, and its strong performances lift it well above the average horror movie. Stamm’s outstanding pacing and measured restraint work to make it an insidiously creepy film, one that will stick with you after the credits roll. And with its love-it-or-hate-it ending, the film keeps itself from feeling too safe. It’s a definite success for the indie horror movement. Three stars out of four.

“The Last Exorcism”: Rated PG-13. Starring Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley and John Wright Jr. Directed by Daniel Stamm. Written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. Cinematography by Zoltan Honti. Original music by Nathan Barr.

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