Take a little bit of Paranormal Activity, mix in generous portions of [REC] and The Blair Witch Project, and then sprinkle on a few dashes of The Exorcist and you have The Last Exorcism. Filmed for the bargain price of just south of two million dollars (it went on to earn more than twenty times that), this faux documentary style shocker wowed both audiences and critics alike with a smart, slick, and delightfully unsettling story that turned the well-worn “found footage” plot device on its ear.
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) had been in the service of God for as long as he could remember, both as a minister and, in his family’s tradition, an exorcist. After dealing with a series of medical complications following the birth of his son, however, Cotton found himself questioning his faith, ultimately losing it altogether. For the next few years, Cotton continued to perform exorcisms for people despite knowing them to be nothing more than a grand parlor trick. He would gather up his tape recorder, fishing string, and “smoking cross”, put on a good show, and, at the end of the day, take solace in the fact that he was easing the minds of the faithful while making enough cash to put food on the table back home.
After reading about the death of a young autistic child during a botched exorcism, however, Cotton decides that it is time to expose his “craft” for what it is, and, with the help of a documentary team, sets out to do just that. He picks a case at random, and he and the film crew head off to rural Louisiana to meet Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), a recently widowed farmer who is convinced that his 16 year old daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), is possessed by a demon. Louis claims that the girl has been butchering his livestock during the night, but has no recollection of it the following day. Upon interviewing Nell, it’s obvious to Cotton that the girl is carrying some hefty emotional baggage. Nell’s older brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), suggests that the families biggest problems lay with their father’s alcoholism and overbearing ways, both of which, Cotton surmises, are a result of the loss of his wife. He decides to perform the exorcism, hopeful that doing so will bring both Louis and Nell a sense of peace and help them to cope better with their loss. Using his usual arsenal of sound effects and sleight of hand, Cotton puts on his show for both the Sweetzers and the camera, and, when it’s over, takes his fee and leaves the grateful family with some instructions from God (quit drinking, love each other, etc). It will be a perfect ending to their film – an example of both the power of faith and how easy said faith can be exploited. But, when Nell shows up at Cotton’s motel later that night, it becomes apparent that this is no “ordinary” exorcism, and, as her condition worsens, Cotton must consider the unthinkable – that this easy case he chose to be his “last exorcism” is, in fact, the genuine article.
The Last Exorcism could have so easily been just another in a long line of Blair Witch style knock-offs, but, thanks to clever editing, a smart script, and some truly authentic performances from its leads, the documentary style approach actually works, here. I give credit to producer, Eli Roth, and director, Daniel Stamm, and their decision to cast relatively established-yet-underappreciated actors in the roles. Patrick Fabian, for example, has been a steadily working actor since the early 1990’s, but, for some reason or another, his star never really took off, so, for all intents and purposes, he’s an unfamiliar face, and his presence here helps to heighten the “reality” aspect of the production while his finely honed talents help to create a truly empathetic and well-rounded character - something we probably wouldn’t get from a less seasoned performer. The same can be said for Louis Herthum and Ashley Bell, both of whom have been relative fixtures on television and in bit parts in films, but whose careers have yet to take off. Bell, in particular, seems poised for great things as the young actress turns in a wonderfully nuanced and terrifying performance, here; one upon which the failure or success of the film hinges upon. It’s all the more convincing thanks to another character – one whom we never really see for more than an instant, and that’s the cameraman documenting the events. Much like with [REC], the cameraman serves as the vehicle through which the audience is drawn into the film, ratcheting up both the tension and our own sense of emotional investment in the proceedings. It’s all very slick and expertly assembled, and it’s effective as hell, especially in the second act where Cotton and the crew spend a night alone with Nell in the creepy farmhouse. The tension and suspense generated in this sequence is almost unbearable, and, had Stamm managed to maintain that until the end, this would easily be amongst the scariest films I’ve seen in ages. Unfortunately, there’s a rather odd twist in the final act that, while admittedly cool in a sort of retro horror way, takes away from the “realistic” vibe that had been so well established up to that point. Still, in terms of demonic possession movies, it’s all a welcome breath of fresh, sulfur filled air, and easily one of the most entertaining and effective horror movies of 2010.
The Last Exorcism comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate, and features a fairly sharp and vivid 1.78:1 transfer, but, for obvious reasons, still retains a somewhat grungy, grainy aesthete in keeping with the documentary style. Daylight sequences are actually pretty impressive, with lots of fine detail and vibrant colors, while darker interior shots have a nice warmth to them, but, once again, this is meant to look like an unfinished documentary, and, as such, I felt the transfer did a good job in conveying that. The DTS HD 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is absolutely brilliantly mixed and rises well above the lo-fi look of the video. The film is chock full of creepy directional effects, discrete surround work, and an ominous and unobtrusive score that all work in tandem to create a truly unnerving and immersive aural experience.
Lionsgate scares up a hellacious amount of supplements for the Blu-ray release, including a trio of commentary tracks (one of which features an actual “exorcist”, a psychologist, and a former “haunting victim”) , and a quality selection of featurettes, including an in-depth making of entitled The Devil You Know: The Making of the Last Exorcism (HD), a look at some Real Stories of Exorcism (HD), audition footage, trailers, and more.
The Last Exorcism is an expertly crafted and truly frightening entry into the found footage sweepstakes, and, thanks to excellent performances, a (mostly) believable storyline, and a convincingly documentarian approach, stands amongst the best examples of the sub-genre. Highly recommended!