Review: The Last Exorcism

Directed by: Daniel Stamm
Written by: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurlan
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell
Released: 2010 / Genre: Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a faker. He preaches the gospel to a congregation of followers with no care for the meaning of the text. From his church in Baton Rouge he is God. But unbeknownst to his fervent churchgoers he is only a showman. A servant of God, only God knows nothing about him. His preaching is nothing more than buzz-words and rhymes, of theatrical delivery and inspirational hyperbole. He has made a career out of conning the believer and his special-effects-ridden exorcisms have proved highly profitable.

Partly to serve his own ego, partly to highlight the hypocrisy inherent in exorcisms, Cotton invites a documentary crew to film him on his next ‘performance’ of the exorcism ritual. Randomly he picks a letter from farmer Louis Sweetzer who claims his daughter Nell is possessed.

Cotton drives to the farm with the two-man documentary crew in tow and finds a seemingly benign family – a worried but caring and passionately religious father, a troublesome but harmless brother, a warm-hearted and angelic-looking daughter. But Louis explains that he is frequently finding his cattle ritualistically slaughtered and his daughter with blood stained clothes. Nell says she has no clue as to how the animals were killed, nor why her clothes are soaked in blood.

Cotton agrees to do the exorcism after questioning the girl and determining that she is possessed by the demon Abalam. Using sound devices, smoke-machines and fishing wire, he secretly sets up Nell’s bedroom for the ‘show’. Inviting her in, he lies her on the bed and performs the demon-killing. The bed shakes, deep voices sweep through the bedroom, paintings rattle against the wall, and Cotton’s cross billows smoke. He even uses thumb rings attached to batteries to invoke convulsions in the girl when he touches her on the forehead. At the end, he takes his money, heads back to the motel and believes his work is done.

last exorcism, film, daniel stamm

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The Last Exorcism works terrifically well up until this point. We’re intrigued by the hope that this will be more than a simple sideshow, and by the suggestion that religious ceremonies, such as those performed by Cotton, are nothing more than theatrics created to empower the vulnerable and line the pockets of the preachers that conduct them. What is interesting is that Cotton is as much the bad guy as any demon. When he shows up for his latest ‘cleansing’, we hope he does come face to face with impenetrable evil so he gets a satisfactory comeuppance. That’s what really hooks you into the film: will this girl actually be possessed, and if she is, what kind of monster has she got inside her.

When she turns up at Cotton’s motel room, appearing as if she is sleepwalking, they take her to a hospital. Cotton, ignoring Louis’ belief that the exorcism didn’t work, realises that the girl needs medical assistance. It is to no avail and Louis makes it clear in no uncertain terms that if Cotton will not remove the demon from Nell, then he will free her from her pain in the only way he knows how. Cotton, realising Louis is referring to killing his own daughter, decides to perform another exorcism. This time he must do it without the smoke and mirrors. Nell recoils backwards, claims she is the demon Abalam, and rips her own fingers out of the joints. Cotton is suddenly faced with either the monster he is at pains to disbelieve, or a troubled young girl as cunning as he is.

It’s somewhere around this time when the film becomes far more interested in cheap shocks and a few demonic voices than the central conceit of a showman battling with his own belief system. When director Daniel Stamm returns to the character arc it occurs haphazardly as if he forgets the film has depth, preferring to concentrate on shallow horror tactics. At about half way into the film we’re in Blair Witch Project territory: taut and intriguing, paced with suitably pot-boiling tension; while the final third is window-dressed shock tactics in a similar vein to the terrible Cloverfield.

One constant is the performances of Patrick Fabian who recalls Steve Martin in the underrated Leap of Faith, and young actress Ashley Bell who is astonishingly game as the girl who may or may not be possessed. She isn’t quite thrown through the lion’s cage like Linda Blair in William Friedkin’s masterpiece The Exorcist, but she’s certainly given a good thrashing by her perceived tormentor.

The Last Exorcism is an effective film and may suit those wanting cheap thrills a little more than audiences wooed by the early promise of a fake, ego-centric preacher forced to question his own PR. What intrigued me was, effectively, the boy who cried wolf having to face the wolf. But the film degenerates from one of genuine interest fuelled by mystery and an underlying sense of foreboding into shaky-camera shock-horror fuelled on adrenaline and falling fatally through the cracks of an out of control plot.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Luke Reply

    I’m glad you’re willing to concede that Bell was a find here. It seems like horror, being the least-lauded genre in film, deserves a closer look. I find that there’s at least one outstanding performance in horror per year, but it goes completely overlooked because of genre bias. This year, it was definitely Ashley Bell. 2009 had Lorna Raver in Drag Me To Hell. 2008 had Kare Hedebrant in Let the Right One In. Hmm… commenting on your blog always gives me ideas for posts! Horror movie performances, here I come! 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Jaccstev Reply

    I second your opinion, Dan. As a horror film ‘Last Exorcism’ is pretty darn effective. It’s short and efficient. I thought maybe the finale was a bit over the top, but it’s overall still enjoyable.

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Jaccstev: Yeah, it’s genuinely unsettling at times and, overall, it’s an enjoyable horror film. But I did feel it could have been better and the ending is a let down.

  4. Avatar
    Richard Reply

    I was one of the few that actually liked the ending. There was something so leftfield about it that I loved.

    Great review!

  5. Avatar
    Manikandan Reply

    I think The Exorcist is better than this movie. The Original one was really Horrible. Nice Review 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Dirtywithclass Reply

    I am so happy i am not the only one who felt Fabian gave a notable performance in this one 🙂

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