By Don Simpson | August 26, 2010
Director: Daniel Stamm
Writer: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum
Directed by Daniel Stamm, The Last Exorcism is another notch in the “faux documentary”-cum-”found footage” horror film bedpost. The film is set-up on the premise that a guerrilla documentary crew is following a disillusioned preacher named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) who hopes to reveal the ignorance and superstition that is fueling a recent resurgence in exorcisms, as well as the dangers that exorcisms pose to the “possessed” individuals (especially children). Delving briefly into Cotton’s past, we learn that he grew up as the son of a preacher man and prominent exorcist; Cotton then took up his father’s profession at a young age beginning as a “child preacher.” Presently, Cotton admits that his belief in God is wavering; but he understands how others can find solace in what he can provide by way of his charismatic performances as a preacher.
Cotton’s plan is for the filmmakers to document his last exorcism — one of a possessed teenage girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) — before he retires. Nell is suspected by her father (Louis Herthum) to be slaughtering their family livestock, apparently while in a trance state. Nell’s father became a devout fundamental Christian and alcoholic after the death of his wife; afraid that his children would be corrupted by the evils of modern society he keeps them on a tight leash and even home-schools them. Cotton, knowing in his heart that demons do not exist, ascertains that the stress of Nell’s mother’s death and her father’s extreme and restricting behavior is the root cause of Nell’s “possession.” Cotton can only hope that his performance as exorcist will be convincing enough to cure Nell’s purely psychosomatic manifestations; but this exorcism occurs so early in the narrative, that it is quite obvious that it will not be successful. This is where the true horror story begins, as Nell’s condition is not as one-dimensional as everyone had anticipated.
The Last Exorcism is a very strange horror film, one that takes a long time to get to the fright fest. Stamm’s film sets off on very patient path during the first act in order to establish sufficient back-story and character development to make the second act more worthwhile — at least for those of us who are more interested in plot than thrills and chills. Basically, The Last Exorcism is not a film to see for its ability to shock ‘n awe y’all; instead, it is a character study — which, yes, eventually moseys its way into a no holds barred horror film — that is carried on the shoulders of Fabian and Bell’s noteworthy performances.
Additionally, Stamm’s film is significantly more thought-provoking and philosophical than the average horror film. Though The Last Exorcism never blatantly mocks the God-fearing Christians of the Bible Belt, it does question some of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Christianity. Cotton’s opinion of preachers is not too far off from my own — they are merely entertainers whose purpose is two-fold: make the congregation feel good and earn money. Many (if not most) Christian sects utilize fear as a means of control and manipulation, and this is where the devil and demons come in. But not only do the devil and demons provide Christians something to fear, they also provide excuses for whenever Christians veer off of their perfect Christian path. And some people veer farther from the path than others — that is where exorcisms come in. Rather than admitting that people do bad things on their own, we are supposed to believe that the devil made them do it or that they were possessed by demons. We are also to believe that a preacher, minister or priest (depending on the Christian sect) have the power — by channelling God, of course — to expel demons from people. (I’m only using Christianity as an example here — there are plenty of other religions that use similar tactics to achieve similar goals.) The Last Exorcism thoughtfully and cleverly takes Christianity to task, but that is not to say that Stamm is denouncing God. In fact the ending takes such an extreme right turn, that it becomes difficult to really know what Stamm and the film’s writers (Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland) really believe. Essentially, everyone associated with The Last Exorcism — from the fictional characters to the filmmakers to the audience — is in search of the absolute Truth and said Truth might be beyond all of us.
Unfortunately, The Last Exorcism really does not succeed as the ”found footage” film that it purports to be, mainly because there are too many sequences that feel contrived as if they were manipulated and edited in post-production. The ”found footage” genre only succeeds whenever the director decides to go “all in” and establish strict guidelines in order to retain full authenticity (and that authenticity was well within the reach of Stamm, Botko and Gurland) — this is where few “found footage” films succeed (Trash Humpers and Jimmy Tupper vs. the Goatman of Bowie) and many fail (Cloverfield, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity). And, without divulging spoilers, I just will say that the ending does not offer any logical explanation that the film will ever be found and shown.
With a little more attention to “found footage” details and a much different ending (if not an entirely different third act), The Last Exorcism could have been a much better film. I went into The Last Exorcism with absolutely no expectations, but I was so impressed by the first two acts that the third act really frustrated me. As for Stamm’s decision to utilize the hyper-real “found footage” film-making perspective to tell this story, well I don’t think it was all that necessary. I don’t think the perspective really added anything to the narrative, if anything it just makes the story seem much more contrived.