The Last Exorcism crept into the top box-office position during its opening weekend. It won’t have the same cultural impact as the first one (or any of the other films it cribs), but does it hold up as a horror film in its own right?

The story begins with a skeptic masquerading as an exorcist.

Title: The last Exorcism

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Daniel Stamm
Written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland

Patrick Fabian as Cotton Mather Marcus
Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer
Iris Bahr as Iris Reisen
Louis Herthum as Louis Sweetzer
Caleb Landry Jones as Caleb Sweetzer
Tony Bentley as Reverend Manley

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb

Premise:

A preacher-turned-skeptic has continued to perform exorcisms because they help psychologically troubled people who believe they’re possessed by demons. He has come, however, to believe he may be doing greater harm by perpetuating the belief in demonic possession, so he decides to leave the business, after performing his last exorcism and having the fraudulent process captured for the camera.

This takes him to a Louisiana backwater, and a troubled teenager, Nell Sweetzer. Is she disturbed? Is she really possessed? As the film progresses, several disturbing possibilities present themselves.

High Points:

The film begins with some good humor and a fascinating central character. The first, most stereotypical exorcism, deliberately recalls The Exorcist— but we know it’s fake, and we see the histrionic proceedings intercut with and undercut by Marcus’s explanation of what we’re really witnessing. Far from detracting from the later horrors, the approach heightens them. The Last Exorcism creates suspense; even if the demon turns out to be the creation of a damaged psyche, it’s still horrific.

The film’s conclusion forces us to reconsider several lines and events. The meaning of, for instance, of Caleb’s happiness upon realizing the exorcist is a fake, shifts dramatically

Low Points:

…However, that conclusion, right out of a Jack T. Chick tract, plays as entirely too hokey when set against the rest of the film, and undercuts the earlier ambiguities (although it adds a few of its own). Furthermore, it leads to a final shot entirely reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project.

At that point, I felt like I’d been subject to a bit of a snowing job.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Approaching the topic of possession from the perspective of a professional fraud strikes me as original, at least in this type of movie. Some of the expected conventions—the local who warns the interlopers to turn around— have been given new life by the film’s context. However, The Last Exorcist borrows heavily from The Exorcist, along with Rosemary’s Baby, Blair Witch Project, and other influential genre films.

Effects: 5/6 This film relies heavily on low-key effects, and it makes effective use of them. Ashley Bell claims she really performed certain bodily distortions, with the production crew adding only sound effects.

Story: 4/6 See “High” and “Low” Points.

The documentary approach can add a level of realism to the horror, but it also means that we’re told things (such as why Marcus turned against exorcism) that might be more dramatically powerful if we saw them happen.

Acting: 4/6 Fabian does very well as a man whose faiths in both religion and science face challenges, and Ashley Bell turns in a believably disturbed portrayal as Nell. The others actors, for the most part, manage in a natural, passable manner that suits the faux documentary form but won’t win any Oscars.

Production: 5/6.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6. The film has been shot with shaky-cam, so those sensitive to that technique may want to break out the Gravol.
In total, The Last Exorcism receives 31/42.

Lingering Questions

1. Why does Caleb tell the crew not to leave his sister alone with his father? We think we know at that point, but we later learn that this could not be the real reason. Other possibilities suggest themselves, but mostly, this seems to be a plot contrivance.

2. I know that the real film footage is a cinematic convention, but I couldn’t help ask: who (in the world of this movie) edited the film? Are we supposed to imagine that Manley’s Satanic cultists are chilling with popcorn and baby’s blood, chuckling their way through the recovered footage?