Documentary Demons

The Last Exorcism combines two genres and sends them to cinematic hell

More a sketch of an idea for a horror movie than a fully formed film, The Last Exorcism is a yawn-inducing attempt to cash in on a combination of exhausted genre tropes. Following in the shaky-cam, found-footage footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Stamm directs an incompetent script about an evangelical con man, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). Cotton carries on his family’s well-established business of conducting exorcisms for illiterate backwoods types who traditionally respond well to the power of material-supported suggestion.

Cotton takes along a couple of documentarians—the cameraman is never shown but the annoying sound girl (Iris Bahr) can’t keep her mouth shut—to record his experiences as a way of coming clean about his dicey religious practices. The trio go on a road trip to rural Louisiana where Louis Sweetzer, a fundamentalist farmer, believes his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed and is responsible for killing their livestock in the dead of night. Homeschooled Nell turns out to be quite a contortionist when the opportunity presents itself, and her freaky brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) is just as threatening as their dad turns out to be. Riddled with poor lighting, inappropriate music and a plot you could fit in a teacup, The Last Exorcism has all the appeal of a glorified student film.

The Last Exorcism is set up as a traditional documentary. Cotton and his dad give direct-to-camera interviews about their family, and we get introduced to Cotton’s wife and young son. The boy knows that Daddy is really an atheist and has a sense of humor about his dad’s hypocrisy. If the character development is slapdash, we don’t mind so much because there are secrets on the table.

Anyone who has seen William Friedkin’s masterpiece The Exorcist knows that the movie spends a lot of time establishing the characters of the young priest, the mom and the innocent little girl who will become unrecognizable by the film’s shocking third act. It’s a lesson that the filmmakers here would have been wise to learn. Instead of establishing any of its characters beyond a thumbnail sketch, screenwriters Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland rush into the exorcism with no idea of how or why the promised event should constitute the finality of the film’s title.

Before the exorcism, the family waits outside Nell’s bedroom while Cotton surreptitiously preps the room with candles, fishing line and whatever little magic trick effects he plans to employ during the procedure. Cotton is shown as a master of his destiny, as well as a master of the people he cons into believing that he will exorcise of their demons.

But then the premature and surprisingly brief exorcism takes place. Cotton’s pre-rigged crucifix emits a few puffs of smoke and bingo, all is done. We know it is us, the audience, that has been conned.

The Last Exorcism (R) ★☆☆☆☆

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