Ever since the success of The Blair Witch Project up and coming filmmakers have tried to recreate the success. Last year brought us Paranormal Activity, a film that I found to be more interesting as a case study for how to make one of these fake documentary horror films than as an actual film. Paranormal Activity was a smash hit based on a strong viral marketing campaign and strong word of mouth and it is clear that Lionsgate took many cues from Paramount in their approach to marketing their latest horror title, The Last Exorcism.
The marketing for The Last Exorcism focuses on the horror aspects of the film but those who have seen trailers or television spots for the film will be very surprised to discover that the demonic possession aspects of the film only comprise about a third of the film. Instead the main premise of The Last Exorcism is to expose exorcisms for the sham they are. The charismatic preacher, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an exorcist and he has called in a camera crew to tell them the truth about his work. Early on we learn that Marcus does not believe in demonic possession at all and that he has been performing a smoke and mirrors show for his believing clientèle for years now. When the interviewer refers to him as a fraud he replies that he doesn’t view it that way, the people have a service they need performed and he provides it regardless of if it is a fake service or not.
Marcus and his documentary crew set out to perform an exorcism in a very remote area of Louisiana for farmer, Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum). Louis believes his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), to be possessed by a demon and he indicates his dead livestock and his daughter’s bloody clothes as evidence. Marcus performs a “test” and determines that Nell is indeed possessed and begins his preparations for the exorcism.
After the exorcism things begin to ramp up but not in the way one would expect. Viewers keep expecting Nell to vomit at the camera or spin her head around in grotesque ways but instead the film takes an odd twist with implied incest and child abuse mixing their way into the film. Mysterious things keep happening but the dropped clues keep leading the viewer away from the truth. The viewer knows what is going to happen but the film effectively is able to draw attention elsewhere making for a tense back half of the film.
Director Daniel Stamm exploits the first half of the film to perfection. He takes the emotions and beliefs of the viewer and twists and turns them in every way possible. Its actually a masterful use of tension and few horror directors today can stake claim to being able to use it so effectively. While I admire what the filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were attempting, their films were not what I consider to be scary. The Last Exorcism on the other hand plays with genre conventions in the right way, it lulls the audience into a false sense of security and then rips the carpet out from under them only to leave them even more confused when the final reveal finally comes forth.
Some who have watched the film have slammed the ending as making no sense and/or being cheesy. Personally I think it is neither of these things and felt it worked quite well. All the pieces for the ending are there in the film, it is just a matter of the viewer being able to put it all in place so they can understand. Considering my dislike of other films of this ilk, the film as a whole makes sense and works surprisingly well.
If I have one major complaint about it though, it is that the footage is “found footage” but they never explain who found it and why it was cut together. However outside of that little bit of nitpicking, I think The Last Exorcism is a film horror fans, especially those drawn to the occult, should make a point to watch. It does so much right that it makes many recent horror films look pedestrian by comparison.
4 out of 5.