In brief; It’s a good film. It may not be for everyone, but it’s a slow burn, much more of a character piece than I was expecting, and very effectively creepy at times. If that sounds like something that could potentially be your cup of tea, go check it out. If you’re looking for something where a Pantera song plays loudly over a scene of graphic evisceration, then I would instead point you in the direction of several other current releases, such as Piranha.
Either way, I would advise you to read no further, since the rest of this review will be for people who have already seen the film. Go back, while you still can! As for the initiated. . . step forward.
I like the look of the film. I’m the first person to get nauseous from excessive shaky-cam, but director Daniel Stamm effectively rides the line between practicality and presentation. It’s believable as documentary camerawork, but Stamm makes sure that the lens bobs it’s head in the direction of things you need to see, and at just the precise moment. In the more intense scenes, the fourth wall begins to break down, and you can hear a bit of score playing as the camera is catching some clearly choreographed moments. There’s a history of that sort of invisible shift from documentary style to just straight-up handheld fiction, most recently with District 9, so that aspect didn’t bother me so much.
The actors are uniformly good, and help sell the reality of the situation, which in turn increases the tension once the shit starts to hit the fan. Much has been said about Stamm’s avoidance of backwoods stereotypes, and I agree completely. The urge to go comical in a situation like that must be strong, and I admire the attempt by the filmmakers to make a serious, heartfelt, old-school horror movie, where any attempts at humor come from the characters and situations themselves, not the director’s visual commentary on the situation. Cotton is a funny character that knows he’s funny, and he appropriately winks directly at the camera when playing someone for a fool.
So, while not having much interest in the film after seeing the trailers, I was pleasantly surprised to be watching a fun character piece, with some good scares, and was satisfied by the “fake” ending in which we learn that Nell is just a troubled kid who got knocked up by some local boy. But, having seen a couple of movies before, I knew that there was clearly one more scare waiting for us at the end. So, they drive back to the farm again, and. . . Oh, boy.
It’s not that I think the ending is terrible, but for me it was a bit of a letdown. The serious, documentary style that works so effectively for the rest of the film falls apart when you’re looking at a bunch of people in red robes standing around a girl on an alter. In Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski recognizes and acknowledges the ridiculousness of such a scenario, deflating the laugh before allowing the horror to reassert itself inside you. By doing the ritual scene in Exorcism with such stone-faced earnestness, it ends up having the opposite effect. It’s a “cute” ending in the sense that it’s not completely out of the blue; a lot of little details from the film, such as the brother’s open animosity to the filmmakers, cycle back around. But it feels like fan service in the worst kind of sense, like Daniel Stamm is finally making a direct wink at the audience, saying “Here ya go, horror fans! I didn’t forget about ya!”.
Minor quibble with the ending aside, I thought it was a damn well made film, and I certainly hope and expect to see more from Daniel Stamm in the future. Do I want to see a Last Exorcism 2? Not so much. I don’t like the ending, but what does work about it is the ambiguity. To further explore the lives of United Satanists of Louisiana would be to go against the baffling and apocalyptic vision that they leave you with. We don’t need another Blair Witch 2, or Saw 2 through 7.