When a horror director elects to present his film as “found footage” – that is, in a faux-documentary style, usually shot in the first-person by now deceased or missing protagonists – the intention is to achieve a sense of realism. Images are scarier if they are perceived as being real. The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm and produced by Eli Roth, attempts to get under moviegoers’ collective skin by utilizing this tactic.
Before performing what is to be the last exorcism of his career, Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), an evangelical preacher from Louisiana, warns the documentary crew he has hired to accompany him that “if [one] believe[s] in God, [one] has to believe in the devil.” To those with faith, a belief in God offers a sense of safety – it’s comforting to know that there is always someone watching over them. The contrasting belief in the devil, however, forces a keen awareness of the evil present in the world, and its potential for infiltrating one’s soul.
Since Rev. Marcus believes in neither, he has little to worry about. After years of preaching the gospel – a career he likens to professional deception – Cotton Marcus has decided to film an exorcism in order to expose the Church for the fraud that it is.
Cotton and his crew arrive at the rural home of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), and are introduced to his daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), the possessed. When Cotton’s usual dog-and-pony show – complete with demonic sound effects, a shaking bed and smoking crucifix – fails to do the trick, Cotton is forced to face the demons in which he never believed.
Much like his character’s performances at the pulpit, Patrick Fabian’s performance in this film immediately draws in the viewer. He has a dynamic personality; one is compelled to listen to him speak, regardless of subject (a trait that is successfully winked at during a scene in which he delivers an intentionally nonsensical sermon, which, of course, earns an “hallelujah” chorus from the congregation). It is obvious Rev. Marcus is sleazy – he makes no secret of it – yet, he remains a sympathetic protagonist. Viewers like him, even though they have just cause not to – it’s part of his charm.
Much of The Last Exorcism plays not as a conventional horror film (though there is a handful of decent scares), but as a satirical commentary on the state of religion in America. By approaching the young girl’s exorcism from a completely secular, grounded perspective, the film explores the role faith plays in family and community. Through revelations made during Cotton’s “exorcising” Nell’s demons, viewers are forced to look into their own beliefs – is faith a virtue, or just a clever way to avoid thinking for oneself? Is Nell actually possessed by supernatural evil forces, or is she just rebelling against her conservative father’s strict ideals?
These are real questions that require intelligent exploration and, surprisingly, it seemed The Last Exorcism would provide worthy analysis to the issues. What was sold as a cheap thrill ride was actually a bait-and-switch for something far more substantial – until the third act.
As the plot approaches the climatic “last exorcism” set-piece, focus shifts from a sharp indictment on fundamentalist thinking to tired horror clichés that the film had so artfully dodged before. The film begins drowning in supernatural elements which – while what many may have been looking for all along – serves to undermine every theme established thusfar. Yes, this is a horror film and viewers want to be scared, but demons and ghosts are shallow. Why not force the audience to face a deeper fear? Question the varacity of their beliefs; rattle their faith and make them doubt their god. That would leave them far more shaken than this does.