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An exorcism movie that's well aware of the horror history that comes before it, The Last Exorcism takes a canny approach to its tale of malevolent spirits and haunted houses by pretending it doesn't believe in any of that junk at all. Telling the tale of Louisiana preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) as he finally admits that his exorcisms are all smoke and mirrors, the movie tries to let up the lights in the haunted house before plunging you back into an even more terrifying darkness. The faux-documentary conceit is entirely unoriginal but the clever premise carries it through, at least until The Last Exorcism fails to live up on every one of its creepy promises and falls apart utterly in the end.
Horror junkies misled by the marketing will be surprised to learn that half of The Last Exorcism really is just like a documentary, featuring talking head interviews with Cotton and his family, well-lit scenes of Cotton discussing his career and his tricks for faking exorcisms, and conversations with poor possessed Nell (Ashley Bell), who by night seems to be murdering her family's livestock but by day is the sweetest God-fearing girl you can imagine. Director Daniel Stamm deliberately takes his time introducing us to Cotton and the creepy Sweetzer family, so that by the time night falls and Cotton is ready to "perform" an exorcism on Nell, you're both anxious about what's to come and glad something's finally going to happen.
Cotton's first, fake exorcism is deliberately funny in its theatricality, but the problem is that it isn't immediately followed up with the revenge of what appears to be a real demon. The Last Exorcism is the kind of lean horror story that would benefit from taking place over one tense, terrifying night, but the story builds over a series of days, as Nell shows up at Cotton's hotel room unexplained, her father (Louis Herthum) and brother (Caleb Landry Jones) appear to know more than they should, and even some of the townspeople start looking suspicious. Cotton and skeptical documentarian Iris (Iris Bahr) realize quickly that there's something fishy going on at the Sweetzer farm but blame earthly influences, while it becomes clear to the audience early on-- thanks to an inspired scene in which a possessed Nell steals the video camera-- that there's something more supernatural going on. It's frustrating to watch our main characters run around foolishly while danger lurks, like a feature-length version of the "Don't go behind that door!" moment in most horror movies.
Aside from Nell running off with the camera the movie rarely takes proper advantage of the documentary conceit, content to scare us with shaky cam and limited perspective rather than have more fun with the constraints of the first-person style. Stamm also makes the terrible choice of adding music to the soundtrack, both unnecessary with the film's real scares and breaking the believability of the documentary style. We can let it slide when there are multiple camera angles in a scene or when a character off in the distance is inexplicably audible, but the typical horror movie music totally deflates the tension the movie builds quite effectively for itself without it.
Though it's ostensibly a story about a skeptic coming to terms with the possibility that there really are demons out there, The Last Exorcism never comes up with a coherent stance on all its religious theory. We're intended to be freaked out by these backwards hillbillies, as Cotton is, but we're also to pity the poor, skeptical preacher for his lack of faith. Writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland are happy to use scary Jesus portraits and religious statues to freak us out but then turn around and force us to respect the power of ancient religion-- and that's without even getting into the ludicrous finale, which takes all this spiritual mumbo-jumbo and turns it up to boil. Clearly we're in an era when the stone-serious religion of The Exorcist no longer works, but The Last Exorcism's cynical take on faith is worse than pandering, it's ineffective.
Still, The Last Exorcism is far less insulting and poorly made than most horror offerings these days, and succeeds in doing a few new things with the faux-documentary style when most of us were more than willing by now to leave it for dead. That's not enough to make up for some glaring flaws, but horror fans exhausted by all the other garbage can be forgiven for pretending it's enough for now.