A word of caution if you're expecting The Last Exorcism, as the name implies, to be anything remotely close to horror classics such as The Exorcist, or even The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While the title may compel you to believe it's a horror film that deals with duels between a servant of God and miscellaneous demons sent from the nether realm, this is instead a film that touches on the evils of man, where we tell lies and engage in deceit for material gain, holding control over fellow man with smoke and mirrors, and aiming its narrative squarely at that of false prophets, explicitly and without mincing its words.
The Last Exorcism follows the recent fixation of having horror flicks made in the first person horror-cam which had discovered its place in the found footage mockumentary sub genre (the latest being Paranormal Activity 2). We follow a documentary crew of Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) and her cameraman who are working on one of the subjects, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a charismatic priest who is anything but the real deal, as his expose in the first half of the film tells. He deliberately exposes the hoax that he is, simply because he's tired of having to lie and deceive members of his congregation who are all too eager to blindly follow in whatever crap he has to say. The first half of the film dwells extensively on a wink-wink showcase on how gullible people are in making themselves the subject of slick scam artists, and Cotton also shows the tricks of the trade used in so-called “exorcisms”.
While you may take all these with truckloads of salt, one thing cannot be denied, and that's how susceptible recent society has become in turning toward religion for answers about the unknown. Just like how good cannot exist without evil or how heroes cannot be made without villains, Cotton made a poignant remark about how people just have to believe in demons, because without which there will be no God since the very existence of a Satan comes hand in hand with that. For the small townsfolk in New Orleans, with its mix of voodoo and hoodoo and whathaveyous, the now very skeptical and disillusioned Cotton decides to demonstrate an example of how demons don't really exist, and all the tales of spiritual exorcisms are nothing but elaborate hoaxes cooked up to reinforce the notion of God. His new calling in life, as he worked with the documentary crew, was to expose the truth behind exorcisms which have so far become deadly in execution, and if he could go out there to prevent an accidental or innocent death, he would have fulfilled his mission.
So his sights are set on that of the Sweetzer farming family, where widower Louis (Louis Herthum) had written a letter to Cotton pleading for help to rid his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) of her possession. I won't spoil any surprise, but suffice to say things don't go always as planned, with questions constantly raised about whether the Reverend had bitten off more than he could chew with some inexplicable moments that build on the previous in a thrilling crescendo of twists and turns, to its intense finale. Bear in mind though, that I'm not talking anything about crab walking, violent levitations or spewing of goo from the mouth, but playing out more like a whodunnit mystery.
Daniel Stamm's film plays on your constant questioning whether the Reverend, who is obviously without the full knowledge of his faith, nor even bearing the faith himself, can be equipped to do what he's thought to be doing, hence the dilemma when things go from bad to worse. Showmanship can only bring you so far, while I was reminisced of a moment in the 80s film Fright Night where one has got to have faith for a simple thing like a crucifix to work. However this film also serves as a story about one priest's redemption and his human decency to do what's right, versus having to wash away all responsibility since he's already paid, and have and was given multiple opportunities to walk away into the sunset.
Patrick Fabian does his role as Reverend Cotton really well, portraying him as the slick, suave and confident schmuck who while does the unscrupulous in the hoodwinking of those seeking his spiritual guidance and help, does realize that he actually wields some influence in making others become better people through the simple effecting of his charisma and position as a Reverend. Ashley Bell as the designated scream queen also performed admirably when she has to vividly portray someone who has a demon in her with her contortionist ability coming in handy, and balances that with the usual innocence that such demons crave to possess bodily. Much can't be said about the other two main leads as they stay behind the camera for the most times, or other supporting characters as they don't get much screen time, but as far as the found footage style goes, The Last Exorcism gets better marks for not unnecessarily inducing dizzying scenes for you to feel nauseous.
The ending may pose a few questions that allows for open ended discussions, but as per the narrative development in the film, there were already subtle little clues dropped, especially in passing remarks that were casually floating around, if an audience were to pay attention to them rather than to close the mind off since the film did not exactly pay off what one would have expected it to. Perhaps this is exactly that which the film is trying to address, to open one's eyes and ears and be acceptable to things out of expectations and the norm, rather than to blindly and faithfully accept hook line and sinker and what others dish out to you.