August 28, 2010

Movie Review: The Last Exorcism

lastexorcism1_largeLike the majority of "found-footage" style horror movies, this is not going to be to everyones tastes. Going in, it would seem to be a familiar story blending elements of The Blair Witch Project and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. You would not be wrong, but at the same time you would not be right. The film came to the big screen accompanied by trailers that give you a good idea of what the film is while not giving you anything to go on at all. In that regard this film had a rather effective marketing campaign.

What I like right up front about this movie is that it did not take a long time to flip my preconceived notions. When you are presented with movies like this it is hard not to put together some ideas of how you think it is going to go. More often than not you are going to be right in the ballpark on some of those ideas while others will stray a little bit. With The Last Exorcism the notions I held going in were pretty much obliterated within a few short minutes. It was this revelation that let me know this was going to be better than expected. It turns out that proved to be right.

The Last Exorcism is presented documentary style, although it is not exactly "found-footage." There is nothing to indicate that this footage has been found by anyone, I feel we are meant to be experiencing this live as it happens as opposed to after the fact like Cannibal Holocaust or Cloverfield. I was never left wondering how we were seeing it, I was actually more focused with what was going on on-screen. Fortunately, what was on the screen proved to be rather engrossing and, again, not what I was expecting.


I went in expecting something typical involving a possessed girl and a man's desperate attempts to save her. I was hoping we would get a fresh feeling encounter between victim and the exorcist. I was hoping for some intense encounters with disturbing overtones. You know, the usual. Instead we are presented with material in a fashion that questions religion, morality, and a willingness to do the right thing even when you don't know what the right thing to do is.

Now, the trick here is to attempt to review the film while not giving anything away. The success of the movie hinges on your lack of knowledge of what is going on, so I feel a need to dance around the edges. I mean, it worked exceptionally well for me and I suspect that it will for many others as well. Fortunately, there are some details that I feel can safely be divulged that may help you understand why I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Patrick Fabian stars as Reverend Cotton Marcus. He is an evangelical preacher, a man who is loved by his congregation for his charismatic preaching, something he has been doing since he was a young boy. What makes Marcus such a fascinating character is that he is having something of a crisis of faith. He has been preaching and performing exorcisms for so long that he knows all the tricks of the trade. Now, this is a character that could be seen as a major bad guy, doing the things he does while simultaneously feeling how he does about his faith seems like a major no-no, a contradiction that would work against him being a proper preacher. This is not the case, he is funny, honest, engaging and you still want to like him. He is given depth and is a fully rounded character who truly wants to do the right thing and feels he is doing good work even if it is not for the reasons that others believe.


This crisis of faith and shift in his beliefs leads directly to the film crew following him to document this exorcism. He receives a letter from  Louis Sweetzer, a farmer in rural Louisiana, asking for help with his daughter whom he believes is being possessed by the devil himself. So, off Marcus and his documentary crew go to see what they can do to help. Needless to say, Marcus has not revealed his wavering to anyone in the population at large. That knowledge would do nothing to help him raise money for himself and his congregation.

To this end, Patrick Fabian turns a rather fantastic performance. The character gives you as many reasons to hate him as to like him. I cannot say I like his methodology or much of his reasoning, but there is something to be said for desire to actually help people. Fabian brings these layers to life and presents an interesting on screen character.

On the other side is Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer. Much like Jennifer Carpenter before her gives a fine performance as the troubled young girl. Nell is a sweet, innocent teenage girl who has become deeply troubled in the wake of her mother's death and is believed to be behind the slaughter of livestock and some odd behaviors. Bell is very convincing as the innocent and the possessed, providing her fair share of scared doe-eyes and haunting blank stares.


Director Daniel Stamm, working from a screenplay by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, does a fine job with the pacing and adding style. Yes, the camera is the shaky style, but it works very well here in showing us only what we need to see. The story takes the familiar idea of the exorcism and puts a fresh spin on it that questions beliefs, supposed truths we have been taught, and makes us question what we are seeing. They give us a story that makes us question what we see and forces us to not take things at face value.

The more I think about this movie the more I like it. It comes at the material from a different angle, does not take the usual Catholic angle, and features characters with more depth than you would expect. It has a brain behind the story, heart behind the character, and is engaging throughout.

Of course there is a small matter of the ending. I will not give it away, but it does change the perception of a lot of what came before it. It will either intrigue you or turn you against it. I left the theater still in the pondering it. I see the ending could have been added as a reaction to those who felt it was needed. I also see it as an original part of the story to further affect Marcus' faith issues. In either case it was quite fascinating in how everything can turn on a dime, change the nature of what we have been shown and still feel that it is the same film.

Bottomline. This is a very good film. Not what I expected and better than I expected. It will stick with you long after the credits roll. I am not afraid to say I was somewhat blindsided by this film. I love the angle it took, I love the characters, I love the reality that shines through everything. This is a winner.

Highly Recommended.

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