Charlatan preacher Marcus Cotton (journeyman actor Patrick Fabian) winks at the documenting camera while he prays with a father who fervently believes his daughter is under the possession of a demon.
Disheartening to say the least, but Cotton’s motives aren’t just monetary, although he admits someone’s got to pay for his family’s heath care. The charismatic Marcus Cotton was a preacher since he was a boy; a gimmick he learned got people to open up their wallets and now just does it on autopilot mostly because of his ability as a showman to control the church floor. But since reading about an exorcism where the preacher suffocated a child in the act of “helping”, Preacher Cotton has made it his goal to debunk the religious practice of exorcisms. Cotton picks the first letter he pulls from a pile, which brings him to Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) and his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) who may or may not be possessed.
The documentary approach to the filming works because director newcomer Daniel Stamm lets that style draw us into with a sense of comfort, then taking us captive when we are stuck at the dark and scary Sweetzer farm out in the depths of the bayou of Louisiana. Stamm, along with writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, don’t use cheap shocks and jolts to scare you but something far scarier; the clash of faith vs. science.
The human trauma that comes from Nell’s mother dying of breast cancer a couple years back has caused Louis to shut their family off from the world. Louis drinks his problems away, while his son Caleb is angry towards God and the home-schooled Nell has taken it a bit further with waking up in the morning with blood from livestock all over her dress and unable to remember why. Nell’s reactions are a bit more intense, to say the least, but nothing that can’t be explained scientifically, making it all the more scary as the little nuggets of the demonic creep into the story as the gripping family drama evolves.
Ashley Bell is excellent as Nell and is basically playing two characters here; one a recluse girl (watch the exuberant joy Bell exudes when the documentary producer gives Nell a pair of Doc Marten’s) and then the catatonic, possibly possessed sadistic version of Nell. Stamm gently dabs a little CGI here and there but for the most part it’s Ashley Bell doing the work of contorting and such which is so much more valuable for real scares. Patrick Fabian as Cotton Marcus does a great job of still being likable which allows us to take the ride with him even though he’s a very flawed man. It’s uplifting to watch Rev. Marcus rely more on faith when possibly supernatural events take place that can still be explained through science.
Sounds like a top-notch film right? The Last Exorcism would be a great addition to the genre if it weren’t for the writers having a major meltdown in the last ten minutes of the picture. The very horror-movie-ending is so against what they took the previously 80 minutes setting up that you just go, “wha happen”? It’s especially difficult to deliver satisfactory endings to horror films, which I get, but that’s no excuse for the disappointment that you’re left with walking out of the theater after The Last Exorcism. You either forgive the ending or you don’t and if I remember correctly, the Bible says to forgive, so go forth children and watch The Last Exorcism and peace be with you.
While the doc feel works we never have the belief this is a real documentary like The Blair Witch Project stirred up, since Stamm sets up his shots perfectly and a creepy violin score usually gives it away, but that’s neither here nor there, it’s the mood that’s been wonderfully crafted.
The Last Exorcism actually succeeds to unnerve the viewer by taking the time to explore both sides of the natural and the supernatural. Scares aplenty, but misses higher accolades due to a cop-out ending.
Take a Drink: whenever Rev. Cotton Marcus compliments Nell.
Take a Drink: whenever anyone tells the camera to be turned off.
Down a Shot: whenever a exorcism happens.