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The Last Exorcism

The beginning of The Last Exorcism establishes the story in The South, particularly Louisiana, in such a stereotypical fashion that it doesn’t come close to off-putting; it just made me chuckle.

That pretty much sums up the entire film for me. The environment and characters feel authentic only because we’re so familiar with them, but he tone and execution employed is disjointed and dull. Sure, there are some genuinely frightening visuals but none of them ever really scared or shocked me. If anything, the film’s storyline and visuals merely kept my attention despite falling into several predictable places and familiar characterizations, along the way.

Regardless, this is a movie that will do well at the box office because it has “Exorcism” in its title.

It doesn’t help that the film immediately feels like two of my least favorite horror flicks, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, with its documentary and “found footage” approach. Add a dash of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a film that is much more intriguing, and you pretty much already know where director Daniel Stamm is going. The sad part is Stamm seems convinced you won’t.

What the film does have going for it are two main characters played by two charismatic and convincing actors. First, we meet evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who, despite exuding Southern preacher stereotypes, comes across as a guy you want to listen to….maybe just to see where he’ll trip up. He’s almost like Wikus from District 9 in both the way he is inviting us along into his world and they way we start to develop a like/hate for him.

We’re given some history on him; apparently preaching is in his blood and therefore (being in The South and all) so are exorcisms. In fact, Cotton (get it, we’re in The South) has been casting out demons since he was ten years old. Imagine how duped you must be to believe that a kid who hasn’t even hit puberty is gonna scare out the Devil.

He invites you, the viewer, on a final exorcism (hence the title), along with two documentarians into the thick of Louisiana. He wants us all to see it go down. Answering one of the many letters from the kind and simple-minded, convinced a demon is slaughtering their livestock, he will show us the admitted con that he is.

We arrive at the rural home of the Sweetzer family and are greeted by the oddball son, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), who tells Cotton and crew to turn around and leave, pelting the back of their van with mudballs to confirm this isn’t a suggestion and that we should be spooked.

Cotton then meets Caleb's twitchy and somewhat vacant father, Louis (Louis Herthum), who shows us around yet doesn’t seem to be disclosing the entire situation. Eventually we meet his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), a common enough, yet equally vacant, looking teen. Her father says she exhibits signs of demonic possession at night. It’s hard to say what is truly going on, since the entire family feels a bit off, but one thing is certain, something has them spooked.

Cotton wastes no time, delivering what feels like his usual routine. He gets big books of demons out and gets worked up and convincing in his fraud, yet his three-piece suit is rigged to stage the whole event. He performs an exorcism on Nell, right in her bedroom, with believable enough smoke and mirrors for all to see. It doesn’t last long though, as we soon see that Nell is obviously not free of possession. Now, Cotton and crew, and you the viewer are caught up in something more real than we were led to believe.

Credit goes to Bell and Fabian for giving us something real in a movie that feels anything but authentic. Bell is the daughter of actor parents; her father is apparently a well-known voice actor, and she must have received some stellar tips because the demonic sounds she summons are quite impressive. In addition, her flexibility and contortions are mind-boggling. There’s one scene in a barn, the scene that’s in all the TV spots, where it looks like Stamm nailed her feet to the ground and pushed her backward. She must have taken months of yoga to get to that level of downward-facing demon.

Throughout the movie, Fabian does a fine job of getting us to follow him. You either want to see him severely screw up or effectively pull his con. Unfortunately, the last half of the film, had Fabian falling victim to a poor by-the-numbers script. Stamm wants us to shout out at the screen and tell Cotton not to turn the van around or not to go into the dark forest, but instead I wound up looking at my watch.

Most viewers will just give in and go along with what Stamm is doing here. The documentary approach will hook them since it’s designed to get us to feel it’s all so real. I get it, because it’s been done to death.

Stamm forgets that the way to get his audience to be sold on reality is to give more time to the actors. I wanted to see Cotton squirm more in his deceptive ways and battle with his own doubt. Stamm makes an effort to go there, showing Cotton earn the family’s trust and then see it all blow up in his face, but then we’re given regenerated shock scenes.

Another area Stamm fails in is his in the scoring cues he employs to build our fear. It’s another way to not trust his actors and the audience. We’ll get there on our own, thank you, there’s no need to help us along with shrieks or dizzying camera jolts.

The silliest moment is when the crew’s camera is taken by a possessed Nell into the backyard barn for same fatal one on one with the family cat. So, what is this? Demon cam? I’m not buying it and neither did many in the audience at the screening I attended. They wanted a scary movie and they laughed throughout. It’s not a matter of the crowd being a tough, desensitized audience; we just don’t want to be insulted.

The Last Exorcism fails in its attempts to convey realism due to its overall approach, and unconvincing attempt at realism. The worst offense is the ridiculous twist ending which includes hooded occultists and a baby demon. I was expecting Karen Black to peek out from under the hood and give a knowing wink.

The thick accents, the rednecks, the prevalent religions and sweaty heat, all establish the setting for impressionable white folk who think a demon possession is just as common as grease on their skillet. I’m not one of them, so I’ll stick to another episode of True Blood to get the right kind of uneasy in Louisiana. Hey, at least it’s not as painful to watch as the last movie I saw with “Last” in the title.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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