Let's face it: found-footage horror movies are played out. More than a decade after The Blair Witch Project opened the floodgates, we've seen numerous films attempt to do for horror what This is Spinal Tap did for comedy--with varying degrees of success. Paranormal Activity added some novelty to the sub-genre, but by the time part four comes out next year I doubt anyone will remember how cool the original was.
The Last Exorcism distinguishes itself from other movies of its kind by being more of a character/profession study than a jump-scare thriller. Initially, director Daniel Stamm and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland wisely present their film as if they don't know they're making a horror movie; their conceit is that this is a documentary about a Louisiana preacher on a crusade to debunk the practice of exorcism by "curing" people through duplicitous methods. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a real-world version of Steve Martin's Jonah Nightengale character from Leap of Faith--raised with beliefs he no longer values, and driven to provide for his family using a God-given talent for parting suckers from their money.
Responding to an urgent letter for help from a farmer named Louis (Louis Herthum), Cotton and a two-person film crew head to a small farm. There, they meet Louis's stand-offish son, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and his allegedly possessed daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell). After some convincing, Louis permits the camera to record the exorcism. In a nifty montage, Cotton walks the audience through his bag of tricks while "preparing" Nell's room for the ritual (fishing line running to the back of a framed picture to create fearsome trembling; decorative rings that deliver minor electric shocks in order to induce convulsions; a crucifix rigged with smoke tablets). Following some brief, impressive theatrics, Cotton declares Nell demon-free and heads back to his motel.
A few hours later, a glassy-eyed Nell turns up in Cotton's room. He takes her to the ER, where he explains to Louis that the stress of the exorcism may have triggered some underlying psychological issues. Louis dismisses the preacher's theories and demands that he help get rid of whatever residual evil has infected his daughter. The following day, Cotton enlists the help of Pastor Manley (Tony Bentley), the head of the local church from which Louis has been estranged since his wife died three years earlier.
Manley agrees to talk to Louis if Cotton can convince him to arrange a meeting. On returning to the farm, however, Cotton finds that Nell's situation has deteriorated. Louis chains her to her bed after she slashes open Caleb's face with a knife, and the sound equipment picks up weird conversations coming from her room--which she supposedly occupies alone.
It's no surprise that Nell is actually possessed. We've seen enough movies to know that one look at the run-time will tell us exactly where the plot is headed. Sadly, the second half of The Last Exorcism abandons much of the fascinating Cotton profile in favor of run-of-the-mill horror antics, like creepy-kid drawings, startling outbursts of violence, and shaky-cam chase scenes. Indeed, this stretch snaps the disbelief cord and raises all sorts of pesky questions, such as:
Who added the title cards and scary music to the documentary?
Who edited the documentary?
Why didn't the cameraman review the footage that Nell shot once he learned that she'd stolen his equipment?
This last point would have saved a lot of grief and, arguably, a few lives. These aren't nitpicks. They're major stylistic and editorial flaws that undercut the promise of the movie's incredible first half. The Last Exorcism begins as a documentary, but ends as a horror movie; the filmmakers appear to have dumbed-down their delivery system for fear of losing audience members who don't like people tampering with proven formulas.
Warning: This paragraph contains major spoilers! Cotton and his producer, Iris (Iris Bahr), discover three of Nell's drawings. One depicts a bloody, white cat; one a man walking into a fire holding a cross; the last Iris and the cameraman hacked to pieces in the woods. A few scenes later, Nell films herself mutilating the family's pet cat in the barn, thus telegraphing everyone's fate and mapping out the rest of the movie. Had the creepy-picture element been left out, the ensuing events would have been powerful and surprising instead of just expected.
None of this should discourage you from seeing this film, though. Despite my major problems with the middle half-hour, The Last Exorcism ends on a terrific, head-scratcher that made me re-examine everything else in the movie. It turns out Cotton has been drawn into a far more sinister situation than he'd initially suspected and Stamm wisely holds true to the realism he'd established early on by leaving the preacher's fate up to the audience's imagination. It's unfortunate that the film ends with a Blair Witch-style run through the woods, but the revelations in the minutes preceding it had me thinking about the plot and character relationships long after the credits rolled.
Aside from the premise and the climactic table-turning, the real reason to see The Last Exorcism is Fabian's performance. He plays Cotton as worldly and self-aware enough to be troubled by issues of faith and commerce, but not so twisted and slick as to be unlikable. It crossed my mind that, after the initial "exorcism", he might anonymously return the several hundred dollars he'd accepted as payment. It's a testament to his gifts that I was invested in Cotton even as his story devolved into a series of standard-issue horror beats.
I consider this a bold second step in the evolution of the faux-horror documentary (the first is Scott Glosserman's brilliant satire, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon from 2006). Hopefully, another forward-thinking creative team will break from convention completely and deliver a consistently smart and entertaining film. The Last Exorcism comes close but, like its protagonist, suffers a crisis of faith when such matters matter most.