As a long-time apologist for the endings of The Sopranos and The Dark Tower saga, I’m a firm believer that fictional journeys (and life) isn’t about the destination. It’s the journey we took to get there. While I may not share the same vitriolic response that others do to those two particularly controversial endings, they obviously left me less than satisfied. However, they fit the themes of the series and didn’t completely subvert or ruin the series themselves. They may not have offered all of the closure we desired but they made sense within the context of the universes they took part in. What happens when an ending almost completely destroys whatever credit you were willing to give a film in the first place? 2010’s The Last Exorcism had the makings (til the final five minutes) of an excellent and modern look at religious superstition and to be a deconstruction of the “possession” genre. It didn’t quite make it.
Filmed in the increasingly popular “mockumentary” style (which is an improvement over the overdone “found footage” style. actually now that I think about the ending, it still is found footage. son of a bitch. ), The Last Exorcism is the tale of snake oil salesman preacher Cotton Marcus. Called into the ministry at a young age by his father, Cotton is a master of the “entertainment” and “theatrics” side of religion. He makes his living as a traveling exorcist though he’s more than willing to admit to the cameras that his services are placebo only and that he doesn’t believe in demons. After a different exorcism performed by other religious figures results in the death of an autistic child (Cotton’s son is autistic), Cotton finally realizes that his “services” could one day do more harm than good and wants to hang his hat up. He calls in a documentary film crew to expose to the whole world the sham that is modern exorcisms by performing one last “exorcism.”
Cotton’s final exorcism takes him to the home of the Sweetzer family. The fundamentally religious Louis Sweetzum (Louis Herthum), who has become a drunk and zealously religious since his wife’s passing two years ago, believes that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Their cattle has been mutilated and Nell wakes up every morning with her clothes covered in blood with no recollection of how it happened in the first place. Although it’s obvious that Nell is a disturbed little girl, Cotton and the documentary crew firmly believe that she is suffering from some type of repressed trauma. When they perform their first “fake” exorcism, they leave the farm believing their work is done. However, when Nell shows up at their motel room five miles away (with no way to know how they were there) later that night, it’s obvious their problems are bigger than they thought.
The film is more than a little “talky,” and the first 2/3 of the film aren’t afraid to openly ridicule religion and superstition (especially in regards to outdated practices like exorcism). It’s easily the most commendable part of the film. As you’re walked through the world of Cotton Marcus, the scam artist, you get a myriad of details on how he uses misdirection and illusions to trick not only his “marks” for exorcisms but also his congregation (where he utilizes cheap card tricks as part of his sermon and even proves that he can ramble about banana bread recipes and still get thunderous applause). There are great jump cuts as Cotton is performing the fake exorcism on Nell where he walks you through all of the smokes and mirrors that go into the noises that play during the exorcism as well as how he can get the “possessed” to convulse and to have the furniture shake. It’s fascinating stuff for all of the skeptics in the room.
Patrick Fabian was a wonderful fit for the shim-sham artist Cotton Marcus. While he obviously has a conscious and he goes into detail about the regret he feels about the scams he’s run over the years, he’s got a natural hustle. While he can’t quite deliver as electrifying a sermon as Walton Goggins in that classic episode of Justified, you can see why people have been falling for his schtick since he was a kid. It’s the little things in his performance. It’s the way you can see how Marcus takes pride in the slickness of his routine even though he knows it’s bullshit. It’s the stubborn way he clings to his belief that nothing out of the ordinary is occurring despite the increasing evidence to the contrary (i.e. Ashley suddenly speaking Latin or finding his motel) even though the lines of doubt are written all over his face. I’m not saying the man deserved any industry awards but he was great for the part.
Ashley Bell received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her part as Nell Sweetzum, and she too is a young starlet with plenty of talent. She has to play several different roles in the film. There’s sweet, innocent normal Nell. There’s catatonic and/or terrified Nell. And there’s demonically possessed evil Nell. She transitions wonderfully into all of these parts. When she’s still normal, there are quiet moments where she gets a new pair of shoes (that cost more than she spends on clothes for two years) from one of the documentary people or she shows off her skill with the recorder to Cotton. There’s a legitimately disturbing moment at the motel before Nell is murderous where she tries to molest the female documentarian. Then finally, there’s a great scene where what may or may not be the demon has taken over her and she taunts Marcus and everyone else. Ashley Bell was able to switch between creepy and adorable on a dime.
The film certainly delivered it’s fair share of creepy moments. I watched the film alone in the dark in my first night in my new attic bedroom, and I won’t lie. I certainly jumped quite a few times. The film was far more disturbing when the nature of whether Nell had really been possessed or not was a little more ambiguous. The film was a little too reliant on “jump” scares which means it’s scare factor goes down significantly with repeat viewings, but for your first go, the sight of Nell hiding on top of a tall shelf she should not have been able to reach or making creepy poses through a window should unnerve everyone in the audience. Much like The Exorcist, the film is able to create a unsettling dichotomy between the innocence and sweetness of Nell with the horror that she is forced to go through as some force beyond Cotton’s explanation ravages her.
However, the film totally falls apart in the final five minutes. Even more so than my regular complaint that no Hollywood film ever seems willing to allow the “possessed” to simply be suffering from dissociative personality disorder rather than an actual demonic possession, the film’s ending is absurd twist that seems more forced than the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan film. Without wanting to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film yet, it comes off as a rather poorly done homage to Rosemary’s Baby. The ending doesn’t so completely ruin the film as to make it unrecommendable. If you like “possession” films, The Last Exorcism has a great premise which it sadly doesn’t live up to. It’s a mixed bag, but if you’re looking for a decent scare, you could do worse.
Final Score: B-