I’ll warn you right now, folks: This one is a very slow burn.
This movie gets really scary really quick when it does, but getting to
that point takes quite a while.
Fortunately, the intervening time is not spent in vain, as it’s
focused entirely on our characters. Chief among them is Reverend Cotton
Marcus, played to perfection by Patrick Fabian. Marcus is a first-rate
snake oil salesman, focused on telling his congregation what they want
to hear so they’ll respond in turn through their wallets. Still, this
con artist is very sympathetic for three reasons:
- He’s trying to support his family. We see that his son was born with
some illness or other and Marcus barely has the cash to pay for
treatment because he can’t get insured — something that this moviegoer
can empathize with all too well.
- As focused as he is on the money, Marcus genuinely wants to improve
the lives of those in his flock and his heart really is in the right
place regarding them. After all, his decision to quit the pulpit hinges
on knowledge of those unfortunate few who are killed in exorcisms,
suggesting that his profession may actually do more harm than good.
- Marcus is very self-aware and (if you’ll pardon the term) repentant
about his profession in lying. He’s so repentant, in fact, that he put
together a small crew to film a documentary exposing the falsehoods of
exorcism so he can retire guilt-free. Thus, we have our movie.
Next, we meet Ashley Bell in the role of Nell Sweetzer. Folks, this
girl is going places. At the start of the movie, she’s adorably sweet.
Soon after, she’s cycling through various levels of scared, frightened
and psychotic. This premise demanded a girl who could make the viewer
scared of her and scared for her at the exact same time. It would be a
tall order for any young actress, but I can’t possibly measure how far Bell knocked it out of the park.
The first act also firmly establishes our movie’s setting: The
Louisiana boondocks. A place of poverty, illiteracy and isolation. A
place forgotten by and distrustful of anything that we might call
civilization. This would be enough for religious fervor to get a good
strong foothold, but the Sweetzer farm is something else entirely.
Meet Nell’s father, Louis Sweetzer. This is a man who is truly
broken. A man who blames his wife’s death of cancer on the doctors who
failed to save her. As a result, he’s turned his back on all science and
logic, going to God completely. He is so dependent on Christianity that
he started home-schooling his kids to keep them away from outside
influences, going so far as to pull them away from the local church
because the church in this rural town wasn’t Christian enough.
Yet he remains sympathetic, for two reasons. First is that he’s brought
to vivid, tearjerking life by Louis Herthum. Second is that he really
doesn’t have anything else.
In contrast, we have Louis’ son. Caleb is a young man who seems to
have taken his mother’s death in stride and writes off his father’s
piety as drunken ramblings, yet he remains just as angry with the world
as his dad. Caleb truly is a sad case: He and his dad both have
absolutely nothing except for Nell, a beat-up truck and a presumably
worthless farm, but Louis at least has his faith. Caleb doesn’t even
have that. He’s got absolutely nothing to live for and nothing to
sustain himself except love for his sister and his desire to be left
alone. Talk about a disaffected youth.
We spend the first act of this movie getting to know and grow
attached to these characters. We see them talking with each other, we
see them talking to the camera and they all get some sweet moments. Even
the two camera operators get some nice character beats. This all
culminates in an exorcism which is presented rather like a Penn &
Teller routine. It’s all very effective and made to look quite
scary, but we’re left to wonder just how much of it is real. Sure
enough, the exorcism is intercut with shots that show exactly how Marcus
prepares for and performs the illusions that sell the exorcism. The
direction and editing really make the scene work.
Then Nell comes back, quite visibly not all right. And this is when
shit starts to get real.
Nell is showing quite visible signs of true possession, but mundane
— if tenuous — explanations are often close at hand. No, I’m not going
to spoil them. Suffice to say that unlike Paranormal Activity or
Blair Witch, both of which had primary dangers that were pretty
much confirmed to be supernatural from the outset, this movie keeps us
completely in the dark and that works to its credit. So many of the
horror in this movie is dependent on the things we don’t see and the
things we don’t know. What’s more is that unlike the aforementioned
movies, which were more or less two-hour setups to a single spectacular
punchline, the scares here start with the second act and gradually build
in intensity from there.
The second act is also where the movie’s themes really come into
focus. When prompted with the possibility that Nell’s possession may be
genuine, the chips are well and truly down for Cotton and for Louis.
Cotton seems to hold out for modern medicine, insisting that Nell be
taken to the police, a hospital and/or psychiatric care until
circumstances finally turn him back to God — but even then, he keeps a
terrestrial contingency plan ready. As for Louis, he’s forced to choose
between his faith and the well-being of his child. It’s no contest: The
man would rather put a bullet in his daughter’s brain than let her
continue under demonic influence. And he’d rather point the gun at his
own head than to think that the possession is less than authentic or
that doctors could be of any help whatsoever.
Both men are forced to deal with denial, responsibility, paranoia and
where to put their faith. It’s fascinating to watch as Cotton tries to
build a bridge between the two, attempting to explain his own
anti-religious stance in terms that the religious man can understand and
accept. It’s intriguing to contemplate these issues in such a fashion,
especially since — as I’ve said before — this is all happening in a
place where superstition is king.
And so, at the end of the second act, we get another exorcism. This
one goes quite differently and ends with a rather final answer to all
the happenings. On the one hand, I thought it was rather anti-climactic
and it left a lot unexplained. On the other hand, it very nicely tied in
with the movie’s central theme of how we can mistake perfectly natural
occurrences for supernatural happenings. How with the right combination
of ignorance, willpower and despair, we can see dangers where none
I was wrong. This movie duped me and I freely admit it. In fact, I’m
rather proud of the fact that this movie so thoroughly fooled me in this
way, as I consider it a sign that I’m still sane. If you successfully
predicted the ending to this movie, then I’d love to read the horror
novels you could write, just so long as you wrote them in a locked and
First, in regard to the ending, I’d like to get something relatively
minor out of the way: This is a “found footage” documentary, and the
ending leaves a lot of questions as to how this footage was supposedly
found. I see absolutely no way that the film shot could ever have found
its way into public hands to be edited, scored and distributed
professionally as this movie was.
Second, I love Cotton’s last action in the movie. We never see its
outcome (I’d personally guess that it ended badly for him), but it’s
still a huge step forward for him and a perfect resolution to his arc.
Third is that in case you hadn’t guessed, the last scene is really
fucked up. I left the theater shell-shocked, trying to piece together
everything that happened and wondering how this ending reconciled with
the thematic substance that had come before. At some point, I concluded
that the ending establishes all faiths and deities as more or less the
same thing: A way to get the comfort, company and an illusion of
knowledge that we so desperately need during lonely and uncertain times.
Even God and the Devil are just two sides of the same coin, as Cotton
Marcus himself points out in the film and in the trailer. I will,
however, admit that a lot of this interpretation comes from my own
extrapolations on what led the characters up to that point. Your mileage
may — and most likely will — vary.
I find it very strange that Eli Roth produced this movie and played
such a big part in its advertising, because this movie really isn’t like
anything he’s made yet. If you want copious amounts of blood, nudity or
mutilations with your so-called “horror”, go watch Piranha 3D
(in which Roth himself hoses down bikini-clad women before getting
decapitated, by the by). This movie is decidedly PG-13 and its approach
to horror is anti-spectacle in every way. The terror is small in scale
and dependent entirely on what’s hidden in shadow, behind a locked door
or inside someone’s head.
Underneath all of its new and effective ways to scare an audience,
The Last Exorcism is a very intellectual movie that focuses far
more on conflicting crises of faith than on jump scares. What’s more,
the film is very strongly anchored by masterful performances from all
the actors involved. This movie deserves to be seen, praised and
discussed on its own merit and it sure as hell shouldn’t be dismissed as
just another Blair Witch knockoff.