Despite every bad trend that lies in waiting for The Last Exorcism to fall into, director Daniel Stamm deftly provides the route for this “found-footage” horror to excel and give us a lean and thrilling character study with scary results. Certain rules simply do not exist as a subtle but involving musical score accompanies the story of a reverend that is out to disprove exorcisms by unwittingly taking on a final challenge that puts everything in doubt. The film is all the more remarkable for the sparse special effects and the PG-13 rating that defies the odds with crafty camerawork. For those not seeking the blood bath often associated with horror these days and willing to put up with a genuine storyline being established in the first third, you will be rewarded with a horror flick that makes you think more than it will make you jump.
The film begins with the history of small-town Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), and how he has been surrounded by religion from birth as he grew up a son of the minister at the same church. Marcus is boisterous and energetic, and shows his control over his audience during his sermons. However, preaching isn’t his only job. Marcus comes from a long lineage of exorcists, which is where the heart of the film lies. The reverend openly admits that while he has participated in hundreds of exorcisms, none of them have truly been bouts with demonic possession. When he reads about a fatal exorcism, he realizes he has to expose the fraud for what it is so he enlists a camera crew to follow him for a final expose. However, things quickly turn upside down when Marcus and crew arrive at Sweetzer farm, where Nell (Ashley Bell) is believed by her father and brother to be possessed by a demon.
What we are left with is a horror film that spends quite a bit of time setting up the characters and story before everything is lost in the maelstrom. When you consider The Last Exorcism only lasts 87 minutes, the story could alienate select audience members who are looking for quick and cheap thrills. For those patient enough, the payoff is worth the wait. Part of the charm of the film is the “found-footage” format which has a nasty habit of turning off certain onlookers before anything is. While The Last Exorcism doesn’t break huge barriers, they never present the film as a true story; instead relying on the message they leave to chill you. Additionally, there is an involving score by Nathan Barr that is unusual in this genre for obvious reasons, but the end result is never intrusive and ultimately helps the film. Tension in the score doesn’t always foreshadow an immediate jump, and sometimes the payoff comes when you are least expecting it.
While new ground isn’t broken by cinematographer Zoltan Honti, the fact that the film secured a PG-13 rating with a limited amount of changes speaks volumes for his talent to instill terror in the audience with the most gruesome parts happening just off screen. Some might scoff at the general idea of PG-13 horror films, or the feeling that punches are being pulled by not showing gruesomely violence, but I will always remain steadfast in the ideal that what we don’t see can be just as effective. You are afraid of the dark because you can’t see what is lurking in the shadows, and your imagination is free to run wild with what isn’t being shown here. Of course, that isn’t to say that the film is free from blood and gore, as one scene of a knife wound had me and other members audibly gasp. Adding onto the topic of the rating, the fact that Nell’s father is a religious man, along with Marcus, means that the lack of f-bombs doesn’t feel forced, and instead fits in incredibly well with the dynamic that was setup in the first portion of the film. Perhaps Eli Roth’s involvement (he produced it) and enthusiasm for this film can help win some people over as well.
Of course, all of the story in the world would be lost in the wind if the acting in the film wasn’t worth a damn. Thankfully, they not only scored a believable lead in Fabian, but hit a homerun with Bell. Fabian’s importance to the film is easy to understand. He is the one almost always in the camera’s eye, and he often has to show the plethora of emotions for audiences to understand what may or may not be seen, without overacting. His fall from the smooth talking man in the church to one suddenly at loss for words is a powerful change that showcases just how deep the hole that Cotton Marcus finds himself in. When it comes to Ashley Bell, her importance is trickier to describe. Suffice it to say that she walks the tightrope of psychosis incredibly well, never showing her full hand, and leaving audiences guessing. But where Bell truly nails her role is the contortionist act she pulls that will have you talking long after the film is over. Her parts were not special effects, and the fact that I even have to state that tells you something about what is in store for her character.
For those looking for a scary film, you will have to temper expectations. Sure, there are scares to be had, as one woman next to me nearly fell out of her seat during the screening, but they are earned instead of simply given. The real treat here is the story and the ability to set up expectation, and then quickly swerve in a different direction, leaving you guessing what is truly happening. We are given a limited viewpoint, and left to fill in the blanks with our mind. The tagline, “If you believe in God, then you believe in the devil,” is a perfect representation of what director Daniel Stamm and crew are going for. They challenge Marcus’ beliefs, which may simultaneously challenge your own as well.
In the end, your ability to push past any previous misgivings about the “found-footage” format will have a heavy influence on how much you can enjoy The Last Exorcism. For those that don’t mind hurdling the genre’s limitations, you will reap the benefits of a horror film that has more to offer than just a few thrills or grotesque violence. Despite the film’s miniscule budget and runtime, what Stamm achieves shows just how bloated and ineffective many films with 10 times the budget can be. We are left with a raw and lean horror film that leaves much to be discussed and dissected after the lights come up. With a mesmerizing performance by Ashley Bell and a haunting theme and storyline, The Last Exorcism is elevated beyond the average horror film and shows that even in a world where so much is rehashed and carved from the same stone, surprises can still be had.