Cotton Marcus (Fabian), a minister who has lost his faith, invites documentary filmmakers to chronicle an exorcism. On a remote farm, Nell Sweetzer (Bell), a teenager in a religious household, is suspected of involvement in cattle mutilations, prompting h
This mock-documentary produced by Eli Roth engages instantly thanks to an interestingly conceived lead character and a charismatic performance. Inspired by Marjoe, a 1972 documentary about fundamentalist hucksterism (a forerunner of the current trend for non-fiction editorialtainment), Patrick Fabian plays Cotton Marcus as a super-smart, glib talker who puts on a good show and has only just started to believe that performing exorcisms might be harmful to his troubled subjects. Blair Witchiness creeps in at the Sweetzer farm, where a hostile brother (Caleb Jones) backs off only when he sees the exorcist for a fake — a creepy idea which resonates later — and a Christian father (Louis Herthum) simmers with the potential to harm his daughter for her own good.
The plot works through several interpretations, wavering between supernatural and psychological solutions. As Marcus admits, exorcism is associated with Roman Catholic priests (“because they’ve got the movie”) but the casting-out of demons is a showstopper on the Protestant side, too. The Last Exorcism is in a debate with the recent The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, which distorted a true-life story into a propagandist tract for conservative religion — here, the only reason Cotton isn’t initially a threat to Nell (or, if there is one, the demon inside her) is that he doesn’t mean what he says. Though we don’t get a definitive answer until late in the day, the pastor’s scepticism is challenged by hard-to-argue-with supernatural happenings — and terror comes as the situation spirals out of the control of the seemingly confident, competent, above-it-all preacher man.
Though we’ve been this video diary horror route often recently, The Last Exorcism has extraordinarily subtle lead performances and runs to proper, 1970s TV-movie scares. Director Daniel Stamm fakes the shaky look of authentic footage, and there’s an understated crossing-of-the-line as the documentarians get caught up in the story and try to influence its outcome — which, as a gruesome prophetic drawing hints, is likely to be horrid. The ending goes somewhere else, and will divide audiences, though it’s a throwback to the likes of Race With The Devil as we pull back from the haunted farm to discover a larger evil in the community.
The method is well-worn and the subject-matter familiar, but this is a smart, scary little picture.