As reviews come pouring in it seems The Last Exorcism is a movie that lives or dies by the last 10 minutes which is very true. The movie is a slow burn that takes up a fair amount of time focusing on the concept of religion, fanaticism and the ever-present question of whether the young girl is possessed or not. All of this is well and good until the final few minutes which seem to tack on a typical horror movie ending that doesn’t feel at all authentic and leaves screaming plot holes. If anything it appears as if producer Eli Roth was responsible for the end, leaving The Last Exorcism to feel like 90% Blair Witch and 10% utter stupidity.
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an evangelical minister constantly questioning the existence of God. A conman of sorts who doesn’t believe in exorcism after the death of a local boy, Cotton has decided he will record his last one before putting up the cloth completely. He answers a letter from Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) asking for an exorcism to be performed on his 16-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell). When Cotton and crew arrive they start to wonder if Nell is truly possessed or if an overprotective father is responsible for her issues. As Cotton and the camera crew become more enmeshed in Nell’s life it will lead them to question their faith and find their lives in jeopardy.
The Last Exorcism doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel as it heavily borrows from past possession films with a healthy dose of the “found footage” concept established by The Blair Witch Project. The movie doesn’t begin with Cotton Marcus going to exorcise Nell, but instead focuses on Cotton as a person and the state of evangelical Christianity in today’s world. Cotton is a man who believes in some type of higher power, but constantly wonders if his faith is as strong as it was when he was a child, essentially whether he truly believes or whether his parents forced him to believe. The movie also delves into the history of possession and exorcism before looking into how Cotton deals with exorcisms. The Last Exorcism spends easily about 20-25 minutes on Cotton as a person, a man who believes in science just as much as religion and believes exorcisms do more harm than good. In his first meeting with Nell he knows that her and her family believes so badly that she’s possessed, he does some trickery to “prove” them right, seeing possession as merely suggestion of the mind. The concept of suggestion and fanaticism is also deeply explored in this movie and how a simple suggestion, an example being Cotton telling Nell’s father of the particular demon he sees in her, can lead to a man wanting to kill his own child to give her spiritual salvation. Had the film stuck to this concept it could have been a unique and truly thought provoking film. In terms of horror the movie is no Paranormal Activity but the few scenes in the horror vein are truly scary from the neck twisting to contortions and snapping fingers. If you are at all squeamish about inappropriate limb movements avoid this.
The main cast members all play their parts as expected with Ashley Bell being sufficiently creepy as Nell despite looking way too old to be a 16-year-old virgin. Her wardrobe and voice work keep her looking young enough and when she goes into full-on possession mode she makes the grade with past possessed teens. The true stand-out of the cast is Patrick Fabian as Reverend Cotton Marcus. The character calls for a man with charisma, a born salesman who can inspire a congregation, seduce them with his words and play off their fears with rigged exorcisms yet maintain likeability. Fabian pulls off all the facets of his character with ease and ends up being the character you want to see succeed in his quest to save Nell from whatever it is that’s controlling her, demon or otherwise.
For a film focused on found footage the greatest thing is that the camera is nowhere near as shaky as Cloverfield or Blair Witch. The last half of the movie does have a lot of running so if you get seasick in these movies the last 20 minutes might make you a bit nauseous. Speaking of the last 20 minutes, as well done as the movie is the ending will make it seem like it came from another film entirely. The movie never truly answers the question of what is wrong with Nell and that would be fine if left alone, instead an ending is forced on that leaves more questions than answers and contradicts everything that has been established. Is the scene at the end some type of Black Mass in line with the cult that is mentioned one single time in the film, or is it a more fanatical exorcism? The concept of a devil baby is forced on the audience here in the most laughably bad way to the point that it feels like a 70’s exploitation horror picture. All of the good will that’s been established is cast aside for an ending that doesn’t make sense.
The Last Exorcism could have tried to be different, instead it seems to cave in favor of being liked by teens to tide them over until the next Saw picture. The first half of the film is introspective and complex about the role of evangelicals and fanatics in religion and the scenes with Nell are definitely disturbing. Either wait for DVD or leave about 20 minutes before it ends.