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RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
• Audio Commentary by Producers Eli Roth, Marc Abraham and Thomas A. Bliss
• Audio Commentary by Director Daniel Stamm and Actors Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian and Louis Herthum
• “The Devil You Know: The Making of The Last Exorcism” Featurette
• “Real Stories of Exorcism” Featurette
• 2009 Cannes Film Festival Teaser Trailer
A preacher who lost his faith performs a phony exorcism, only to find out that maybe he needs to find his faith again.
Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, dir. Daniel Stamm
Pastor Cotton Marcus (Fabian) is a preacher’s kid at a down-home, local church. Raised as a Christian by his father to be very involved in his church, he lives the life of a star. His congregation adores him, and he can do no wrong, preaching about the devil, Jesus, and even banana bread. Pastor Cotton has a secret side-job as well: he’s an exorcist.
But he’s not just any exorcist. He’s a preacher with a job he no longer believes in, performing these rituals with literal smoke and mirrors. He believes the affected need psychological help, and he offers a placebo to these people, carrying out these ceremonies to help the affected heal themselves (and receiving some monetary reimbursement in the process). After news about an exorcism that went awry, he decides it’s time to reveal the hypocrisy. Hiring a documentary crew, he chooses to clear the air once and for all. Like a magician revealing his most valuable secrets, he picks an envelope from his mail, reads a letter from the Sweetzer farm, and takes his crew to Louisiana to demonstrate how his performance really works on these poor demented people.
Except this isn’t any ordinary case…
It is not well known, but the FDA recently approved a drug called Sus-Bel. Near the end of the 20th century, a film genre came about that surprised Hollywood. Known as the “Found Footage Mockumentary (FFM),” this genre started as a low budget experiment up against Hollywood’s normal slew of generic blockbusters and Oscar-bait films. A little film about a witch became an overnight sensation. The domestic return on investment of this film (ignoring marketing dollars) was 2,342%. Needless to say, Hollywood financiers woke up, and film after film copycatting this one became commonplace. But as more and more of these were released, the harder it became to swallow the techniques used to present the mockumentary. So scientists invented Sus-Bel, which boosts the suspension levels of disbelief in the brain for those of us who want to enjoy FFM films, without the natural reaction of wanting to call out “Bullshit!!” (Please don’t confuse Sus-Bel with Quee-Lib, the anti-queasy drug developed to help center your vision while watching the erratic camerawork of the FFM.)
In all seriousness, enjoying The Last Exorcism requires your levels of disbelief to be at a maximum. In going the fake documentary route, the creators have decided from the start that they are building the story around a gimmick. Much skill is required in the creation process to combat the audiences’ natural reaction to feeling duped or misled in the presentation of the story.
Every viewer is going to bring their own baggage into a film like this. In order for a mockumentary to be judged as successful, the creative team needs follow the rules of a single camera shoot as closely as possible, and contain the smallest leaps of logic as possible. The story needs to be believable, the actors natural, and the developments have to flow from beginning to end. I found it easy in this movie to disregard the faults ingrained in the genre and ended up liking The Last Exorcism very much.
What really sells The Last Exorcism are the actors. Patrick Fabian plays Pastor Marcus as a circus ringleader, completely aware of his lack of faith and his ability to dazzle a crowd. The team he assembles, his sound person Iris and the cameraman Daniel, don’t get much screen time, but they are not the story. Pastor Marcus is the star of this show. We find out early how energetic and extremely personable he is, and he relates his feelings on religion and his current state of doubt with an amusing and casual stance. Being the center, he knows he’s the star, and he carries himself as one, always aware of the camera and with a wink in his eye. There is not much that the other actors get to do, and in fact, you never get to see the cameraman.
The actors who play the family do very well also. Ashley Bell plays Nell, the “possessed” daughter, and she has a lot of simple, basic, creepy actions that are sometimes scary and usually chilling. She’s mysterious enough to keep you guessing. Her brother is equally unsettling, and her father, played by Louis Herthum, is the best. He plays his role as an enigma, never knowing if he’s keeping secrets or being the honest scared-shitless father of a possessed daughter. The late appearance in the film of a local pastor and his wife complete the cast. These two play it so straight and honest, they look as though they were cast right off the street.
The story is pretty good at keeping you guessing. There’s a good setup and a lot of mystery. There are quite a few twists and turns, but eventually everything that happens was expected when you look back. Coming from the perspective of the lone cameraman, they manage to get quite a few spooky shots, such as the last second smirk of the possessed Nell as a door closes on her, and her surprise appearances in hallways (ala The Burns girls from the Shining).
In order to enjoy this film, you will need to disregard a few things. First and foremost, the cameraman’s sole purpose in the film is to hold the camera, and that’s it. Every weird situation that arises, and there are many, you might notice that the cameraman does nothing to help. Of course, if he did, we wouldn’t see what happens. Also, no one in the film has a cell phone, and no one ever tries to get the authorities involved. Some scenes are obviously filmed with multiple cameras, as dialogue will switch immediately back and forth between actors. Finally, don’t be distracted by the eerie music. Why they would ever add a soundtrack to something that is supposed to be real is another of many questions it’s best not to ask. Overlooking these technical aspects and character inaction will determine how much you enjoy The Last Exorcism.
I really liked the way the story developed, and the gradual rate of discovery in it. I did find the end to be rushed and to be honest a little too foreshadowed, but there were still enough surprises and an original take on the exorcism theme that overall I enjoyed.
The Last Exorcism has a plethora of extras. First off there are two commentary tracks, one with the producers and one with the director and actors. I found the producer track, mostly voiced by producer Eli Roth, to be enjoyable, but the other was much more interesting. The director was very informative, and the actors provided a lot of fun behind the scenes information.
Real Stories of Exorcism was hogwash, and I found it to be a little too over-the-top that after watching a documentary designed to bullshit you they present something after the fact as serious.
The extras are rounded out with your basic Making Of featurette, and an original trailer presented at Cannes.