Review: ‘The Last Exorcism’

I pretty much watch any horror movie I can get my hands on, and have been doing so for most of my adult life.  I can only recall a handful of movies that genuinely scared me.  Add this one to the list.

For three-fourths of the running time of the film I was literally biting my knuckles like a little kid.  The movie scared me, pure and simple, and it is rated PG-13!

Whether you find the movie scary or not likely hinges on whether you find the subject matter convincing.  If you don’t believe that demonic possessions are possible, I doubt you will like the movie, and will probably find it silly.  However, if you believe that this really could happen,  The Last Exorcism will scare you to death.

The movie begins with a documentary crew interviewing a minister named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian.) Cotton has been  groomed since childhood to be an evangelist, following in his father’s footsteps.

He  has gained notoriety with his effusive showmanship.  He frequently employs magic tricks and props to whip the congregation into a spiritual frenzy.

His convincing delivery and tendency to employ  theatrics make him a natural to perform “exorcisms.”  After years of jilting desperate people out of their hard earned cash, he has decided to quit performing exorcisms, and has agreed to take the documentary crew on one last exorcism, to expose the fakery involved in the profession.

He randomly chooses a letter from a stack of exorcism requests, and they promptly embark on a journey to Ivanwood, Louisana, a poverty stricken rural community. He’s been summoned to the  Sweetzer family farm, well off the beaten path.  Dad Louis (Louis Herthum) shows Marcus and the two-man film crew the grisly remains of some recently slaughtered livestock and some blood-soaked clothing that belongs to his daughter. He is convinced his daughter is possessed, and that she has committed the atrocities.

Daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) has no recollection of the nocturnal events, and is eager to cast the demon she believes possesses her out of her body.  Nell is a freshly scrubbed 16 year old who is sweetly naive.  She has been home-schooled, and has no interaction with anyone outside her family.

Marcus puts on a real dog and pony show for the exorcism, using hidden props, sound effects, and smoke.  It’s an impressive spectacle.  Marcus believes that he is helping people, but he doesn’t believe that they are actually possessed, they just think they are. By going through the motions, he allows them to believe that the demon has been freed, and that is all that matters. He still considers himself a healer of sorts.

It appears to everyone that the “exorcism” is a success.  Marcus and the film crew return to a motel, and when Marcus awakens,  a catatonic Nell is standing in his room.  How did she get there with no car?  How did she know where he was?  And why did she come?

Marcus is convinced that Nell has some serious mental issues that require psychiatric intervention, but Louis doesn’t believe in psychiatric medicine or doctors, for that matter. His wife died of cancer two years prior, and he has no faith in them.

Marcus and the film crew become involved with the family out of a sense of responsibility to Nell.  She has a father exhibiting bizarre and even homicidal behavior, and a sinister brother.  Marcus finds himself at a critical crossroads.

What was supposed to be a routine deception has become all too real.  How does a minister react when he doesn’t even believe in what he sees with his own eyes?

This is a rare horror movie that is character driven.  Director Daniel Stamm builds the suspense slowly, drawing us into the Sweetzer family so that when some horrifying events unfold, we actually care.  These characters are not the throwaway cardboard cut-outs that all too often litter horror films.

Marcus, in particular, is  a complex character.  He admits to the film crew in early interviews that he had a crisis of conscience and began to question his faith after his premature son miraculously survived.  Marcus notes that his first thoughts of thanks were to the doctors, not God.  He was so disturbed that God wasn’t first and foremost in his thoughts that day that it caused him to jump down a rabbit hole of doubt and self-loathing.

Marcus is a deeply flawed person.  It is utterly reprehensible that he takes money from these people, and winks knowingly behind their back.  He is downright smarmy most of the time. However, as the film progresses he steps up in ways few people would or could.

Contrast that with Louis, who has become a Christian Fundamentalist following his wife’s death.  He is self righteous, so much so that he doesn’t feel the church they attended was serious enough, and he pulled the kids out.  He tries so hard to be holy that he actually becomes evil.  He hits the bottle, hard, all the while denying his children any contact with the outside world.

When Marcus shows up for the first exorcism he tells Louis that Nell’s only salvation is death, unless the exorcism works, in order to heighten the drama.  Louis is such a blind believer that he is quite willing to gun down his own daughter when the first exorcism doesn’t work.

Marcus is backed into a corner, promising to perform another exorcism to buy Nell some time and assuage Louis. He knows he is in way over his head, but he can’t leave, or Louis will kill Nell.

The film benefits from an excellent cast.  Stamm wisely chose to go with unknowns.  I shudder to think what this movie would have been like if a lot of big stars played the roles instead.  It is so easy to get caught up in the story and feel like you are really watching a documentary, because the personalities don’t hijack the film.

Patrick Fabian is fantastic.  He does an amazing job with a complex character, and manages to be likable and repellent  all at the same time. Louis Herthum is heartbreaking, chilling, and utterly believable as Nell’s father.

Ashley Bell pulls off the innocence of Nell, coupled with the pure evilness of her possessed alter ego. Her brother Cabel is played by Caleb Jones, and he is amazingly creepy.

This is a wonderful psychological thriller that unfortunately falls apart at the end.  I would have been quite happy if I never saw the last 12 minutes or so.  Even so, I highly recommend this film, which is a fresh and frightening.

Warning: if you can’t handle “shaky cam” steer clear.  The documentary style of the film is very frenetic, and might cause motion sickness if you can’t take the handheld camera look.

Recommended if you like: The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Frailty, Rosemary’s Baby, Blair Witch Project.

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