There are plenty of horror directors I would call outright hacks: an over-reliance on atmospheric music, silly jump scares, and tracing the footsteps of horror film giants are some common hack tropes. I therefore appreciate the fact that The Last Exorcism shies away from these amateur tactics and delivers a weaving, apprehensive paranormal package.
Reverend Cotton Marcus has been groomed since childhood into the preachin’ business. But his pursuits have left him jaded, questioning himself and his faith. In an effort to deconstruct the mystique surrounding supposed “exorcists,” Cotton invites a film crew to follow him as he reveals his methods of subterfuge: with some fishing wire and a few hidden speakers, you can make people believe anything if they want it badly enough. The story darkens when Cotton’s bag of tricks holds no sway over what truly ails young Nell Sweetzer.
Whenever a horror film is released featuring a single, documentary style perspective, everyone rushes to compare it to The Blair Witch Project. In doing so they forget that Blair Witch used it well and that the comparison is not automatically astute. The Last Exorcism operates as a documentary, yes, but as a finished documentary, with various edits that eliminate the messiness of The Blair Witch Project.
Due in part to the style and the performances of the small cast, The Last Exorcism develops textured characters, especially Cotton, who is played by a nimble Patrick Fabian. Though the film also follows Nell (another believable portrayal by Ashley Bell), this is about a preacher confronting his own snake oil salesman attitude. The first 1/4 of the film is spent learning about Cotton and his recent crisis of faith, which only bolsters the film’s verisimilitude when the creepies occur.
Like some of the best horror films, The Last Exorcism builds toward its second-degree-burn-inducing boiling point. The establishment of believable characters combined with increasing threats, from this world and the next, twists the vise clamps. The film’s path is never clear, with shifts and turns that keeps the film thrumming with freshness. The film’s conclusion in particular is simultaneously its strong point and its silver bullet (if it were a werewolf I suppose).
SPOILERS, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
Several sources have already posted about the film’s conclusion, with this Yahoo piece stating, “Many felt that dramatic tension centering on whether Nell was possessed or just crazy imploded in the film’s final ten minutes.” I would have to disagree with this criticism, however, as the film’s transition into another unexpected area piqued my apprehension and did not prompt confusion.
The real problem with the ending is that for the first time during the entire film, Cotton is no longer with us. As Cotton walks out to confront the Big Bad, the film crew (with us in tow, via the camera) runs off only to meet their demise. We not only literally, not mortally, lose our central character, but we do not know his fate. It is almost more upsetting to know the fate of the marginally significant film crew than it would be to know Cotton’s.
One can understand how it is formalistically an impossibility to follow Cotton: as he marches toward the demon (?), our cameraman couldn’t follow him without being tackled by the cultists. It’s an issue of the documentary-style delivery of the film – we can’t just have an anonymous camera following Cotton like in a normal film, since the cameraman and his/her presence has to be accounted for. However, that doesn’t remove the responsibility of the filmmakers to keep us with our central character and deliver some sort of send off before the character departs.*
I have no problem with the extra turn taken by the film or even the bleak ending. But it should have given a little more time to Cotton before he leaves us.
Though the movie is presently dividing audiences, The Last Exorcist will outlive films like Piranha 3-D. Cotton’s character development creates a unique dynamic, as audiences are not just reacting to what occurs before them, but are always thinking, “How is this affecting Cotton and his crisis of faith?” Any film with quality character engagement is one that earns high marks, even more so for a film that goes beyond traditional storytelling structures in a way that keeps you guessing and engaged. The film stumbles over itself at the end, but that doesn’t affect the genuine concern for our hero, nor does it change the film’s ability to deliver genuine unease.
For many audiences, seeing a horror film is less about being afraid and more about being impressed with bloody special effects. The Last Exorcism trades in common corn-syrup-saturated formats for an experience that truly horrifies (not just produces revulsion or cheap startles). A must for horror fans, but a warning for those who believe in demons: you probably won’t be able to sleep that well afterward.
*one possible conclusion could be the following: we spend more time watching Cotton praying, preparing for what he’s about to do, and then we see him walk across the field. Just as he’s about to… do whatever he does off-screen in the current ending, the cameraman gets whacked.