The Last Exorcism crept into the top box-office position during its 2010 opening weekend. It won't have the same cultural impact as the first one (or any of the other films it cribs), but does have some merit of its own. The story concerns a preacher-turned-skeptic masquerading as an exorcist. The horror lies in the challenges to his two faiths, past and present. Has he uncovered a genuine example of possession, or a truly disturbed individual? If the former, what does that mean for the world as he (and we) understands it, and why, in thousands of previous cases, has he never found an actual demon before? If the latter, what could have caused such a disturbance, and might it be more frightening than literal legions of hell?

Either way, could Preacher Cotton Marcus be part of the problem?

The film does well with these questions and ambiguities-- until the film's final scenes.

Directed by Daniel Stamm
Written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland

Patrick Fabian as Cotton 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

We're introduced to Marcus (Patrick Fabian) and his family through a now-familiar horror movie conceit: faux documentary footage. Our protagonist has continued to perform exorcisms because they help psychologically troubled people who believe they're possessed. He has come, however, to think he may be doing greater harm by perpetuating the belief in demonic possession. Marcus decides to leave the business, after performing the titular last exorcism and having the fraudulent process captured for the camera. He wants to expose the flim-flam to the world.

The hand-held cameras (once again, pack your Gravol if this sort of thing upsets your stomach when projected on a big screen) and documentary approach add an element of realism. They also rob the film of the kind of character development we see in the original Exorcist. We're told key elements of Marcus's development that would be more compelling if shown to us.

Of course, the approach also saves time. Marcus, the filmmaker, and a cameraman soon head to a Louisiana backwater, a place haunted by layers of history and superstition. They meet a self-isolated, religious family: father, son, and daughter (the mother has passed away). The daughter, home-schooled Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), presents as charming, faithful, and earnest. At night, however, she manifests other personalities, speaks in strange voices, draws strange images, and mutilates and kills animals. Disturbing as her behavior may be, it would seem she needs psychiatric help. Her father refuses, since such things are of the world and the devil, and so Marcus offers his assistance.

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 mystery deepens, however. We're left wondering what, exactly, is happening in the Sweetzer farmhouse. The clues lead in different directions, none comforting.

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.

Approaching the topic of possession from the perspective of a professional fraud strikes me as original, at least in this type of movie. However, The Last Exorcist borrows heavily from numerous influential genre films, including Rosemary's Baby and The Blair Witch Project. We've seen much of this before. To the film's credit, some of the expected conventions—the local who warns the interlopers to turn around— have been given new life by the film's context.

Spoilers follow

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.

Unfortunately, that conclusion, right out of a Jack Chick tract, plays as entirely hokey when set against the rest of the film, and undercuts the earlier ambiguities (although it adds a few of its own). The delicate balancing game the film had been playing not only gets thrown in one direction, it gets thrown by the most ludicrous and clichéd twist possible. To add insult to ritual sacrifice, we move from Black Mass to a final shot right out of Blair Witch. I liked much of The Last Exorcism, but the conclusion left me feeling I'd been subject to a bit of a snowing job.

The conclusion also raises some interesting, 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 and forced red herring.

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 movie? 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?

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