Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism is a well-acted, interesting vérité-style exercise, sort of in the style of "The Office" or District 9. It has some solid laughs, okay effects and is quite watchable, but might not be everybody's cup of tea.
If you wish to avoid spoilers altogether, you should stop reading this now and head to the theater. I will describe the basic set-up and characters here, but leave major surprises intact. If you really, really want to see it, probably do save this for later, because it's better cold.
The film is told as a documentary-style record of an exorcism. Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian, excellent in a performance which defines "breakout") is not your typical movie exorcist, we find out pretty quickly. A Christian preacher and expert on the gospel of John in Baton Rouge who uses magic and other entertaining diversions to hold a crowd in his sermons, his own faith has undergone some transformations. He's been preaching since he was a boy, and comes from "generations of exorcists." He even has an ancient Latin book of demons he and his father have used in many purported exorcisms.
Marcus has some strong principles concerning the proper performance of exorcisms. He has a young son, and stories about failed exorcisms resulting in violence or death turn his stomach. He hopes to do better than those he considers frauds or worse.
Somehow he's got a documentary crew (played well by Iris Bahr and Adam Grimes) who are interested in filming one of these efforts. Fabian is so charismatic as Marcus that it's really not that hard to believe. So Marcus picks a request for his spiritual assistance off the top of the pile and they head to the Sweetzer farm in Ivanwood, Louisiana, to kick some demons to the curb.
At the Sweetzer farm they get an iffy welcome from Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones of No Country for Old Men, perfect) and higher hopes from patriarch Louis (Louis Herthum, great), whom Marcus had assumed was the possessed party, and Nell (Ashley Bell, also perfect), who may, instead, be.
The film does deal with issues of faith, belief, spirituality, hucksterism, evil, and more. But it fails to make a strong case for much of anything. This is not necessarily a big failing, just putting these issues in play and watching them develop is pretty fascinating here. Still, it feels like these issues are sort of left on the table in a lot of ways. The film seems to come up a bit short on any kind of bigger thematic promises.
There are probably one or two too many twists or major surprises at the end. The film doesn't exactly cheat, depending how you define that for a fake (supernatural?) documentary. But some entertaining ridiculousness near the end and some abrupt about-faces don't quite sustain a horror or suspense thriller feeling. Not that it ever stops being creepy.
If you're looking for pure terror, this isn't exactly a horror film. It's funny, pretty bright, and doubles back a few too many times to sustain major scares or much suspense. But it's fun, original, tries hard to be more groundbreaking and mostly fails at that. Still, it's surprising and entertaining, just worth seeing if you think you might like to.
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