The Last Exorcism (review)

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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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Fri, Aug 27, 2010 11:39pm

I have a huge problem with this sort of movie no matter how well executed. People, often helpless children, die during exorcisms. It’s is a very dangerous variety of nonsense:

And I’ve heard (correct me if I’m wrong if anyone has better information) that the film THE EXORCIST fueled a sharp rise in interest in and performance of exorcisms.

What is your opinion about the responsibility of film-makers and other artists in regard to subjects of this sort?

Sat, Aug 28, 2010 12:21am

Mail Order Wife was uncomfortably hilarious.

Ide Cyan
Ide Cyan
Sat, Aug 28, 2010 12:34am

David Ellis: that’s something the movie addresses, though your mileage may vary on how well it does so.

Sat, Aug 28, 2010 1:09am

It’s is a very dangerous variety of nonsense:

As Ide Cyan noted, this is addressed in the film, though it’s one of those things that would have been stronger if the last five minutes of the movie had been chopped off.

Sat, Aug 28, 2010 9:10am

“David Ellis: that’s something the movie addresses, though your mileage may vary on how well it does so.”

Good. But from what’s been said (while avoiding spoilers) it seems that the movie tried to leave things ambiguous—maybe it was a demon possession, maybe not.

If so, I think it’s playing a dangerous game with a topic where real people are dying needlessly here in the real world.

I wish we’d see some exorcism films that deal with the reality of the subject—the helpless being subjected to cruel torture and sometimes dying as a result because an idiotic superstition.

Sat, Aug 28, 2010 3:16pm

I wish we’d see some exorcism films that deal with the reality of the subject—the helpless being subjected to cruel torture and sometimes dying as a result because an idiotic superstition.

For what it’s worth, CSI actually did this. The episode is called Go to Hell. Kind of a disturbing episode, too.

Sun, Aug 29, 2010 7:18am

[SPOILER!!! added by maj; please remember to add spoiler warnings]

Is it just me or is anyone else reminded of “Night of the Demon” with Dana Andrews? Skeptical protaganist seeks to expose spiritual fraud, 90 minutes of is-it-real/isn’t-it-real, and a sudden shock ending that settles the question?

Sun, Aug 29, 2010 2:48pm

In all fairness to the film, what the ending does very effectively is point out (in its own creative way) how dark and dangerous these evangelical types are

Thu, Sep 02, 2010 1:42pm

Minor Spoilers, No Specifics

I don’t have much to add here other than the fact that I agree with MaryAnn entirely on this one.

It felt like the movie was getting everything right up until those last few moments. It might not have been so jarring/shocking/terrible if there were any indication that this was the direction we were being led in. Granted, if that were the case, the rest of the film would probably have suffered. Instead, it feels like we’re watching the ending to a completely different film.

The filmmakers spend 90 minutes building trust with the audience and then quickly shatter it with a seemingly superfluous and nonsensical wrap-up. It was completely unnecessary and very confusing. Even ignoring the social commentary and overarching themes, it just doesn’t make sense from a story telling standpoint.


Tim M.
Fri, Sep 03, 2010 8:53am

For what it’s worth, there are real documentaries out there about the dangers of modern-day “witch hunting” and exorcisms. In fact, HBO2 ran one just a few months ago called “Saving Africa’s Witch Children”. Check it out:

While I have problems with Last Exorcism’s ending in terms of it undercutting both the film’s overall atmosphere and logic, it’s not nearly as irresponsible at The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which went out of its way to distort the facts of the original case and yet it still claimed to be based on a “true story”.