The Last Exorcism (review)

The Devil Inside

Here’s what I knew before I went into The Last Exorcism: it’s a phony documentary, a film that pretends to be “real” but is all a put-on. And it’s about a modern “real” exorcism… real within the context of the pseudo reality of the “documentary,” that is, but also real in the sense that this kind of irrational nonsense continues to be actually perpetuated well into the 21st century.

And all those preconceptions about the movie are accurate. But they cannot even begin to hint at what the film is really about. Or at how, in the last few minutes, the film let me down so profoundly. It’s absolutely worth seeing… if only for the intriguing debate to be had afterward, if it wouldn’t be an even stronger film were the last five minutes or so to be chopped off.
Ooo, I don’t want to spoil. Suffice to say that from pretty much minute one, The Last Exorcism wasn’t what I thought it was going to be: it was, instead, so much more. More thoughtful. More knowing about the true cultural and community purposes that religious leaders serve. More questioning about the realities of skepticism and superstition and science, and the intersections of the three. Surprisingly poignant. Wonderfully ambiguous. It is both its own twist on the standard exorcism story as well as an insightful commentary on the tropes of this horror subgenre… exploring, for example, why it seems it’s always young girls who are possessed, particularly when the possession is so dramatic as it is here. There are specific vulnerablilities of young girls in our culture that are pegged here with a keen eye… and portrayed so beautifully by Ashley Bell as Nell, the sweet, sheltered teen who needs to be exorcised.

The focus of “documentary filmmaker” Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) is Baton Rouge charismatic preacher Cotton Marcus, who has — for reasons that will become clear — decided to get out of the exorcism business after having performed dozens of the rituals. (Actor Patrick Fabian is incredibly magnetic as Cotton, and brings, as a TV actor whom you’ve undoubtedly seen in at least one of his many supporting roles without actually remembering him, the sort of comfortable familiarity and instant intimacy that you’d expect a charismatic preacher to bring to interactions with his flock.) Iris will be documenting this last exorcism of his, which will — they learn after they drive out to the remote Louisiana farm that’s being afflicted — be carried out to rid 16-year-old Nell of the hellish spirit that is occupying her body. And because we see all the events that occur filtered through Cotton’s eyes and Cotton’s biases, what follows takes on an unusual perspective, one that is unexpected and that, when things don’t go as Cotton expects, veers into quite a different area than whatever preconceptions you’ve brought into the film about religious horror movies would lead you to anticipate.

This is not our father’s Exorcist. Anyone hoping for heads twisting all the way round and nightgown-clad girls crawling on the ceiling will be disappointed. In fact, no FX at all were put to use in the possession scenes: nothing you’ll see is anything beyond what the human body can actually do without an assist from CGI. (Director Daniel Stamm makes a stubborn insistence on maintaining the documentary reality go a long, long way.) Much as how writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland made their previous faux-doc effort, Mail Order Wife, turn its weather on an aspect of its situation that you were never expecting, so they do again with The Last Exorcism. I just wish I didn’t feel that how it ends undercuts that commendably fresh angle on everything that came before.

Watch The Last Exorcism online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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