Despite its seemingly epic title, “The Last Exorcism” may not be what you’re expecting to see. Since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999 to more recent films like “Paranormal Activity” and “The Fourth Kind,” mockumentary horror films have terrified their audiences by leading them into a false wicked reality. While this particular style has started to get stale, “The Last Exorcism” never attempts to convince you that it is actually “found footage” but rather allows you to take a step into its world and experience a very unique take on a classic belief. Its aim is not to make you feel sick with the dizzying effects of a shaking camera, but to give you an even clearer perspective.
Not being a particular enthusiast for exorcist-type movies (I tend to scream and cover my eyes from the demonically possessed) it took a lot of mental preparation to ready myself for this theater experience. This preparation, as it turns out, was rather unnecessary. In order to really appreciate “The Last Exorcism,” you must first toss all your expectations out the window and disregard the ideas the trailers may have put in your head. If you are willing to go into this with an open mind, then you will be satisfied to find an exorcist movie very unlike any other.
The film follows Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian, “The Land of Astronauts,” 2010), a miraculous and well-known evangelical preacher who is actually more smoke-and-mirrors than a man of God. As he embarks on a mission to perform one final exorcism and simultaneously expose demonic possession as a falsity, he and his crew find themselves engaged in one family’s disturbing experience.
Though the scares are milder than one might expect, the suspense of what may come achieves a certain psychological effect. Even more than halfway through the movie, hope still lingers that this false sense of security would soon be shattered by a terrifying punch in the gut.
But in the end, the most frightening thing about the movie is the potential fright itself. It is the uneasy feeling we get when wandering into a good horror movie, the uncertainty of when and where and even if something is going to pop out at us. At the same time, there exists the uncertainty of just how seriously to take this film. Should I hold my breath like any classic horror film, or can I afford to laugh at the cheesy dialogue? Are the images of a spastic young girl horrifying or hilarious? This constant feeling of uncertainty works in favor of the film, keeping your heart racing and your mind churning to process it all.
It makes sense that Eli Roth (“Hostel,” 2005) would produce this film — think all the nonsensical fun of “Cabin Fever,” only this time the mysterious woods becomes the mysterious countryside. It is that middle-of-nowhere town that sets the stage for turning skepticism into belief.
Roth worked closely with director Daniel Stamm (“A Necessary Death,” 2008) to approach the subject of demonic possession with less straightforward fear and more curious inquiry. Through these realistic characters we are able to examine a culture’s superstitions, their uncertainties and their overall human nature. This human nature aspect of the film is what makes it work so well. “The Last Exorcism” plays with our doubts throughout, for just as soon as we begin to believe a certain outcome, another possibility presents itself.
There also exist the doubts of the characters themselves. Even though the preacher is supposed to be sure in his faith, he ultimately believes the “possessed” Nell (Ashley Bell, “Stay Cool,” 2009) needs medical help instead. “The Last Exorcism” works toward an honest perspective with a mild satirical humor embedded throughout.
4 out 5 stars.