Thanks to the massive success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and last year’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, the horror film genre has created a subgenre that, in my opinion, is finally able to manage to scare the shit out of me. Its effectiveness is in the conventions and style it uses to present its story. These films are always premised on a documentary that’s being made and the audience is watching the story through the footage that’s being shot for the documentary. This in turn requires that one of the characters be the cameraman, which also requires that he always be shooting. This is the one major limitation of this subgenre. Obviously, if the camera isn’t on, then there is nothing for the audience to see. The challenge is for the filmmakers to have valid and plausible enough reasons for the cameraman character to continue shooting even if it doesn’t make sense at times. THE LAST EXORCISM is the latest addition to this faux-documentary horror genre and for the most part I pretty much dug it. Although this summer didn’t end with the bang that last summer did when DISTRICT 9 and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS both came out in August, THE LAST EXORCISM is a nice way to end the summer movie season.

THE LAST EXORCISM is a mockumentary that is told from the perspective of a disillusioned minister, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) (one of the best movie names I’ve heard this year by the way). Since he was a child and his father inducted him into the ministry, Marcus has performed numerous exorcisms, but over the years he has grown skeptical of their validity so he agrees to participate in a documentary that will chronicle his last exorcism and expose the fraud of his ministry. Marcus gets a letter from a family that lives out in the boondocks of Louisiana that requests his services to exorcise the demon that’s apparently possessed their daughter. He goes out there planning to use a number of tricks he’s employed in the past to make everyone think that the devil is really inside the person (i.e. he makes the bed rock, gives a small electric shock to the “possessed” so that her body will convulse like its possessed, etc.). The family falls for it and they pay him his money. Of course, this time things don’t go according to plan and I’d be putting it mildly by saying that you’re going to be in for a surprise.

This film was produced by Eli Roth, who is among the newer generation of horror filmmakers and for whom I have a lot of respect for. He entered the horror scene a number of years back with a little indie movie called CABIN FEVER and followed that up with HOSTEL and HOSTEL II. He is a self-avowed lover of horror movies and much like Quentin Tarantino, Roth’s work is a love letter to the movies he grew up watching. Roth appears to have discovered a promising new director with Daniel Stamm, the German director who makes his directorial debut with this film. Stamm doesn’t offer anything you haven’t seen before in other horror films so what makes this movie work is all in its execution. It has a few problems, but overall, it hums at a brisk pace that doesn’t let up on the entertainment and suspense end.

The best thing about THE LAST EXORCISM is the wonderful performance given by Patrick Fabian, who plays the Reverend Cotton Marcus. He is the classic huckster preacher who bamboozles his faithful followers in the name of Jesus Christ. At one time, he really did have faith in Christianity, but he grew to stop believing in his religion and instead saw it as an opportunity to make money to support his family. For the first 30 minutes or so of the movie I was enthralled in being introduced into Fabian’s life and listening to his views on religion. Fabian’s performance reminded me of the one given by Sharlto Copley last year in District 9. Both actors kind of came out of nowhere and gave affecting and natural performances that completely capture your attention. Cotton Marcus is not a bad person despite the act he puts on for his followers. Although he doesn’t believe in what he preaches, he continues to give hope to those who come to his church and he still does care for people as we later see when he genuinely tries to help the possessed girl. He just doesn’t think that a person can be helped through the power of God. Fabian’s character is affable with a little bit of slick to his personality.

The other performance that completely won me over was that of the young woman, Nell Sweetzer, who is possessed by the devil. She is played by another newcomer, Ashley Bell. I guess its not surprising that the two best performances of the movie come from the preacher and the possessed girl because if they sucked, you wouldn’t have much of a movie. Upon first meeting her, you’re totally won over by her. She is a poster child for innocence and its hard to imagine someone as sweet as her could be capable of committing the horrible things she’s done. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to present her as the extreme opposite of her possessed self and it works.

Another aspect of the film that heavily contributes to its success is its setting. I love Gothic American stories and other horror stories influenced by America’s traditions, culture, and folklore. THE LAST EXORCISM is set and shot near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This is a poor, rural area that’s steeped in folklore and superstition so its only appropriate to set a exorcism story in this part of the country. The video format of the movie helps to accentuate the backwoods-y, decrepit feel of the area. Add to the fact that the possessed woman lives on a farm in the middle of fucking nowhere and you can get an idea of how spooky this movie gets.

[SPOILER ALERT] Its difficult for me to continue this review without discussing the spoilers in this film so I’ll warn you right now that if you haven’t seen the movie, then its best advised you stop reading and go see the film.

If this movie doesn’t turn into one of the most discussed movies of the year, then it very well should. When the film finally reaches the point of revelation where we discover that the girl is indeed possessed, the story takes an unexpected turn that none of you will foresee. Discussions on the internet seem to be divided about whether the climax and resolution work and I would guess that about half the people who see this film will not like the ending (to illustrate this divide, the friend who I saw it with did not dig the ending whereas I did). I’m not going to describe what happens because I assume most of you who are reading this far have seen the movie. Now I can understand how far-fetched it sounds to have a nice old preacher and his wife end up being devil worshippers who impregnated the girl with a demon, but it’s the unexpected nature of this turn of events (especially in relation to how the story progresses before the ending) that made me like it. I’ve actually bitched in the past to people how the one topic that horror movies don’t seem to ever tackle is religious cults so seeing this was all the more refreshing for me. Furthermore, given the locale and the little bit of foreshadowing in the early parts of the film, I didn’t find the ending all that implausible. Voodoo is well known to exist in Louisiana so why not devil worship? Finally, what really made me like the ending was in how our main character vindicates himself. Instead of simply killing him off for butting into affairs that he shouldn’t have been butting into, our character regains his faith upon witnessing the devil worship ceremony. There is an awesome shot at the very end where the preacher raises his crucifix against a wall of fire (which is supposed to be the demon) and runs toward it in defiance. Talk about vindicating a character in a grand manner. He found his faith and sacrificed himself for God.

As to what doesn’t work in THE LAST EXORCISM, one issue I had was with the pacing. The movie moves along at a brisk pace for the first hour as we meet the preacher and get to learn about his life. The film continues to pace well as our characters head out to the farm and meet the girl, her father, and brother and then perform the fake exorcism. I think where the movie begins to falter a little is when the preacher suspects that the girl’s father is abusing his daughter and he may be the real culprit. At that point, I think the filmmakers seemed to have struggled with what the characters would do. I wasn’t altogether convinced that staying inside the house with the psycho girl (who proved numerous times that she can severely injure others) and trying to take her away from her father was the smartest thing or the likeliest thing the characters would have done. I kept wondering why they simply didn’t leave and call the police to take care of matters. Even though the preacher did seem to genuinely want to help the girl, the measures he takes to protect her didn’t seem consistent with how his character is presented at the beginning of the film.

I also felt that the ultimate reveal that the girl is indeed possessed should have come sooner. The filmmakers take too long to tease the audience as to whether or not something supernatural really is going on. The discovery that the girl is really possessed and the subsequent conversation with the demon should have arrived sooner. Speaking of the conversation with the demon, I so wished that lasted longer. To take that long to tell us that the girl is demon possessed only to give us a few minutes of interaction between the preacher and the demon was cruel. I think the audience was entitled to more, especially given how well the girl acted when speaking with the demon’s voice.

THE LAST EXORCISM is an overall good film that I would recommend to anyone who likes horror. Its thought-provoking, but in a different sense than INCEPTION was. For those of you wondering about the religious themes/message of the film, I suppose the film is about redemption. I was actually surprised by really how anti-religion the movie ended up being. Although the preacher has lost his faith at the beginning of the movie, he regains it by the end. I’m sure some religious folk will take issue with the fact that he dies at the end of the movie so that must mean that evil triumphs over good. So be it, but that’s not how I saw the movie and besides, its clearly not meant to convert you to Christianity. Anyway, I do recommend the movie so check it out when you can.