The Last Exorcism
- Directed by Daniel Stamm
- Written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
- Starring Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum and Caleb Landry Jones
- Classification: 14A
Quick, when's the last time you saw a really great exorcism movie? That's kind of a trick question because there really is just one - and the rest are mostly sequels, prequels, remakes or parodies of it. William Friedkin's The Exorcist did more than turn heads in 1973. A huge commercial and critical success in its day, the horror movie classic based on William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel, inspired by a real exorcism case, still tops "scariest movie of all time" lists.
The Last Exorcism, a creepy, smartly written and very entertaining low-budget chiller co-produced by director Eli Roth ( Cabin Fever, Hostel), does not try to compete. Instead it refreshes the subgenre using a storytelling technique that has worked (and also not worked) in several recent low-budget horror flicks: the faux documentary. In this case, the approach serves the story well, thanks to the collective filmmaking experience of the creative team - not to mention a thoroughly excellent cast of non-marquee actors who (sometimes literally) bend over backward to convince.
Director Daniel Stamm's first feature, A Necessary Death, winner of the audience prize at the AFI Festival in 2008, used the faux doc technique to great effect, as did writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland in their 2004 indie comedy Mail Order Wife. Working in the horror genre for the first time here, the writing duo was inspired by Marjoe, a 1970s documentary following a preacher who wants to get out of the exorcism racket that he exposes as a fraud. Combine all that with Roth's knack for well-timed jolts (one suspects his input propels the film's final stretch of plot twists) and you get a horror movie that keeps you on edge without turning your stomach.
As The Last Exorcism opens, a female director and male videographer (heard but mostly unseen throughout the movie) are following Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a handsome, dynamic evangelical preacher embarking on his last exorcism with the same goal as the main character in Marjoe. Cotton picks one letter at random from a stack of pleas from people who believe a loved one is possessed by a demon. Soon Cotton, his suitcase of "special effects" trickery and the crew are bumping down a dirt road in rural Louisiana. They hope to get permission from a fundamentalist Christian farmer (Louis Herthum) to film the exorcism of his home-schooled teenage daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), who appears to have been wasting the livestock.
Before they reach the front door their vehicle is stopped by Nell's brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), who suggests they turn around. The redheaded teen casts a skeptical eye at the smooth-talking preacher's exorcism prep, chuckling to himself when he spots Cotton's tricks. But Caleb is whisked out of the picture to the emergency room after Nell does a serious hack job on his face.
We don't see this. One of the pleasures of the film is that the documentary crew turns on the camera after something has happened or is in progress. We become participants in disturbing events that shake Cotton, who - perhaps as penance for years of parting devil-fearing folks with their money - decides to stick around and figure out what's wrong with Nell. After a bit of local sleuthing he becomes convinced that she needs psychiatric help. But he is so wrong.
While the writers' comedy chops certainly generate some good laughs, it's never at the expense of people's religious beliefs. In today's world, where (as the media notes state) exorcisms are on the rise and supported by organized religion at the highest level, this subject is no laughing matter. The Last Exorcism successfully walks that fine line between exploring big questions and executing big scary fun.
Special to The Globe and MailReport Typo/Error