With a small, well-chosen cast, sly script and slippery, ambivalent characters, The Last Exorcism gives a welcome twist to the demonic-possession movie revival.
A fourth-generation minister, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) of Baton Rouge's Church of St. Mark was groomed for the pulpit. Onetime child preacher Cotton has grown out of the trembling faith of his forebears, though not the job security of preaching it. Nowadays, he can make an ironic aside from his cruise-control sermons without missing an "Amen." As his passionate faith wanes, his showmanship gains: He integrates card tricks into his preaching, like a birthday-party magician. But once he's shaken the parishioners' hands, he washes off the Blood of Christ and returns to a well-adjusted family, clean suburb and secular concerns.
Cotton drops the preacherman twang when discussing this double life to his confessional, a documentary camera crew. As The Last Exorcism begins, we follow him through a day-in-the-life, shot from the crew's handheld p.o.v., which the movie retains. The filmmakers (a heard-but-barely-seen cameraman and Iris Bahr as Iris Reisen) have come to track him on an exposé mission, shedding enlightenment on the religulous Louisiana backwaters. The end of a line of exorcists, Cotton has decided to give away the game on a practice that's a superstitious placebo at best. He and crew follow a random request for divine intervention to the Sweetzer farm in Ivanwood — old, weird America where folks gladly volunteer their tales of cults and UFOs. Though he doesn't show the stage presence of a born evangelist, Fabian is quite convincing as a man giddy to speak his doubts out loud — and a bright, slightly smug professional planning a career move. When Cotton calls the backcountry they're visiting "a perfect breeding ground for demons and evil," you can hear the scare quotes in his voice around the "demons" and "evil," antique words synonymous with ignorance.
But the past isn't past with Sweetzer patriarch Louis (Louis Herthum), who's concerned about daughter Little Nell (Ashley Bell). Though meek and mild with company, she's been having mysterious blackouts, after which livestock are found slaughtered. Dad's a drunk, and everything's gone to hell since Mom died, says son Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) between throwing rocks and casting baleful glances at the intruders. Cotton delivers practical psychology homilies along with his casting-out-of-demons spiel, performed with the fishing wire F-X of a huckster medium, then collects his payment. But this doesn't quick-fix Nell, now going through violent, lusty sleepwalk seizures and gymnastic contortions.
The script, by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, is a well-paced tease, a succession of slow approaches to understanding what's happening, with each new understanding revealing a false bottom. The suspense is ideological — is this a world of documentary pragmatism or horror irrationality? Either everything has a textbook explanation in shame and repression — or we must heed the immortal words of the Louvin Brothers and believe that Satan is Real.
Cotton's therapeutic wellness contrasts Louis' gloomy, marrow-deep faith. A smart piece of exploitation, The Last Exorcism plays on very different audience prejudices toward these polar "types," one adjusted to and the other unreconciled with the modern world. Putting on his pressed linen suit, Cotton admires himself with a sharp grin and jokingly imagines a new career — "Maybe I'll sell real estate" — with citified know-it-all gall. Papa Sweetzer, meanwhile, is of one with the homeschooling movement; church school curriculum, we're told, wasn't "sufficiently medieval." "He's got a lot of guns in the house," worries Iris, with a load of assumptions implied. (Obviously a veteran of the indie-film festival circuit, she's only too happy to chalk everything up to incest.)
Comparisons to that Blair Witch jumble will come, but adding a patina of reality to horror is as old as the epistles of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Exorcism is a more rigorous movie. What's important is that the story isn't obscured by the faux-eavesdropped shooting style — and it mostly isn't, though herky-jerky camerawork only goes so far for creating thrills, and who added the tired "suspense" soundtrack to this "found footage"?
The climax is a rush, like conversion. It isn't, of course, the last exorcism. Who knows what anyone who made this film actually believes in, but, as with Reverend Cotton's "Get behind me, Satan" jive, this show always finds paying customers.