Sunday, March 3, 2013


"The Last Exorcism" (**** OUT OF ****) amounts to something more than the abysmal "Blair Witch Project." This above-average, 87-minute, Lionsgate release doesn't rely entirely on wobbly camera movements for its impact. Indie Teutonic director Daniel Stamm lenses the action as if it were a straight-forward documentary. Meantime, a sense of irony permeates this unobtrusive epic that isn’t entirely apparent on initial viewings. The chief difference between "The Last Exorcism" and "The Blair Witch Project" is its sophistication that I missed when I saw it the first two times. Stamm employs the cinema vérité camera style when he wants you on the edge of your seat. Mind you, nothing scary happens up front. Audiences who crave blood and gore may feel cheated. Just when you think you might see something bloodcurdling, Stamm cuts away to a reaction shot of people looking at what you want to see. Any shots in "The Last Exorcism" that would have required blood and gore as well as slashed up body parts were omitted. In one scene, the demon-possessed girl kills an angry white cat, and its remains look like a heap of bloody rags. Rated PG-13, "The Last Exorcism" uses the single-camera approach to accentuate its suspense and the tension.  Nevertheless, Stamm spawns a surfeit of suspense and tension by playing it cool. "The Last Exorcism" does pale by comparison with the mother of all exorcism movies "The Exorcist" and lacks a tenth of "The Exorcist's" impact.  Meantime, Stamm and his scribes create some genuinely creepy atmosphere in the remote backwoods settings where "The Last Exorcism" occurs and many of the home-grown performers are convincing, especially Patrick Fabian as a minister who is having a crisis of faith.  This one point eight million dollar film was a success, earning over $40 million domestically.

Indeed, "Broken Condom" scenarists Huck Botka and Andrew Gurland establish the character of the protagonist, Reverend Cotton Marcus of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a sympathetic fellow who wants to expose exorcism as a scam. In Cotton's own words, he doesn't want to read about another unfortunate adolescent dying because an exorcist wrapped a bag around the child's head in his zeal to oust a demon. Cotton (Patrick Fabian of "Must Love Dogs"), has been preaching since he was knee high to a pulpit. He comes from a long family line of preachers who also served as exorcists. His father, Reverend John Marcus (John Wright, Jr. of "Waiting Room"), has performed 150 exorcisms, and Cotton carried out his first exorcism when he was age ten. Cotton's father owns a 'who's who' of all the demons. He keeps this vintage leather-bound volume written in Latin locked up in an office safe. Nevertheless, Cotton isn’t entirely happy with his career as an exorcist and he wants to atone. 

Like the religious figures in all exorcist movies, Cotton is wrestling with his conscience about what he has done in the name of God. Cotton confides in us that exorcisms are more popular now than ever. He brandishes a newspaper article about an exorcist academy that the Vatican has instituted to help combat the scarcity of exorcists. He makes his agenda clear from the beginning.  "What I want to do is expose exorcism for the scam that it really is, and that's why we're doing this.  So if I can help expose it for what it really is and save one kid from having a plastic bag wrapped around his face that sounds like God's work." Cotton has a pile of exorcism requests stacked up on his desk. He selects an 'urgent' letter at random. A single-parent, Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum of "In the Electric Mist") of Ivanwood, Louisana, who believes his 16-year-old daughter, Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell of "The Truth about Angels"), is afflicted with demonic possession. Of course, Cotton thinks all the poor girl is suffering from is schizophrenia. Louis shows Cotton a disemboweled cow in his barn. When Cotton talks to Nell, he finds some disturbing artwork, but he believes he can handle this case with relative ease.

Unfortunately, Reverend Marcus finds himself in a bigger predicament. Initially, he conducted an exorcism—that he faked with a magician's finesse—and everything went off without a hitch. Nell recovered. Cotton counted Lewis' money. Cotton and his camera crew left the premises to spend the time in a motel. Cotton didn't tell the Sweetzers where they were checking in for the night. Imagine Cotton's surprise when Nell shows up at their motel. He carries Nell to the local hospital, and they discover Nell is pregnant. When Louis learns the truth, he swears that a demon has raped his virgin daughter. Earlier, Louis' oddball son, Caleb Sweetzer (Caleb Landry Jones of "No Country for Old Men"), had told Cotton that his father was a drunkard. Predictably, Cotton suspects Louis may have raped his daughter. Meantime, Louis demands that Cotton perform another exorcism. Louis is fully prepared to kill his own daughter with a shotgun to save her immortal soul if Cotton refuses. Cotton and his camera crew find Nell's latest art work, and the unseen photographer doesn't like the idea that he is depicted in the picture as a man without a head. At this point, things really begin to twist and turn.


The genius of "The Last Exorcism" lays in its superb sense of irony. The first-act is flawless as we watch Cotton prepare his charade.  By the second and third acts, you realize this is more than just another found footage flick and that Cotton is battling more than simple superstition. This movie wallows in its own sense of irony because Cotton refuses to believe in demons. Since he rejects demons, Cotton has lost his faith. Indeed, he presents an expose of his own exorcism and demonstrates how he uses a sound system to frighten his clients. A local minister and his obese wife serve as comic relief, but "The Last Exorcism" doesn't conjure up many laughs because it is so powerful. Stamm knows how to generate suspense, without calling attention to his real agenda. This chiller boils down to a compelling an expose about a non-believer who confronts the reality of a world he abhors. "The Last Exorcism" succeeds as a memorable exercise of terror because the filmmakers shun blood and gore so we cannot take our eyes off the exorcism.