Superior storytelling mixed with masterful misdirection. The devil is (quite literally) in the details.
Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) was raised as a preacher’s son with one foot in the pulpit. While he has performed exorcisms before, a crisis of faith later in life has led him to doubt that demons are real and caused him to question God. Still going through the motions to provide what he feels is a necessary service whether he believes or not, a documentary crew follows Cotton to a small farming community where a little girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) seems truly possessed. While the girl’s father (Louis Herthum) is certain of foul influence, Nell’s brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) is as doubtful as Cotton. As the details start to emerge into a strange truth, Cotton’s faith will be called into question again, and it won’t only be Nell’s eternal soul on the line.
Produced by Eli Roth (who’s no stranger to the low budget horror genre) and directed by Daniel Stamm, The Last Exorcism is a mock documentary that shows truth as a subjective thing, whether it’s a righteous man’s faith or a preacher’s lack of it. From beginning to end, each character has a motivation that builds upon one another to shape the film’s outcome, and it does so both subtly and sneakily. Viewers expecting huge special effects or a gore fest may be disappointed, but those who enjoy the feeling of a story slipping under your skin and needling you with you own imagination, this one’s for you.
While Patrick Fabian carries the film as the crisis of faith preacher, innocent Ashley Bell sells the pretense as the possessed young woman. With the documentary angle, it’s easy to dismiss Bell’s performance early on before she turns it up. And those creepy twists and backbreaking bending are actually all her (according to interviews; she’s double-jointed.) The rest is all told though the camera, and while the documentary producer and cameraman are part of the cast, the camera is allowed to roam where even the cameraman can’t go thanks to a clever if contrived bit of film making.
The finished product rises above many similar thrillers while following the same traditions, but the movies this most reminds me of is John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Hilary Swank’s The Reaping. With a shoestring budget, The Last Exorcism is able to invoke the feelings of dread, inevitability, triumph and tragedy that Darkness overreached for and Reaping overcomplicated with too many special effects. Keeping the story grounded as the simple tale of a preacher attempting to expose a fake while discovering his own truth ends up suspending disbelief better by far. Nicely done.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)