Found footage films are often overlooked because the camerawork ends up detracting from what’s shown on-screen. A lot of the time, it’s not believable with how shaky the camera gets at times, nor can you believe that someone would continue to film even when their lives are being put on the line. And then there’s the professional editing and cuts that just don’t work if all you’ve got is a camera. In order to enjoy these films at all, you’ve got to suspend your disbelief quite a bit.
So why, if we’re already having to ignore these two points, do people insist on adding a soundtrack, no matter how subtle? Whenever something bad happens in The Last Exorcism, a found footage horror film, we get a musical prompt to feel scared. Either a loud noise will play, or some other post-production sound will appear. We’re already suspending our disbelief quite a lot for these types of films, so why is our patience being tested even more than it needs to be? You can make a scary film without additional sound effects, but that option is rarely chosen, which I think it too bad.
The Last Exorcism begins with Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) telling us the story of his career with the church. He eventually informs us that he’s tired of performing the sham that is an exorcism, and since people have begun dying from them, he’s going to reveal that possessions don’t exist, and that exorcisms don’t actually do anything. Instead of just coming out and saying that, he decides to take a filming crew to one final exorcism, all while revealing how he makes the bed shake, demon sounds appear, and other stuff like that.
He goes to the farm of Louis (Louis Herthum), whose daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) isn’t feeling well. Apparently, some livestock has be killed, and everyone’s putting the blame on Nell. She has no recollection of it, because I guess that a demon wouldn’t allow you to recall any deeds done while under its influence. The exorcism is eventually performed, nothing goes wrong, and the filming crew leave with Nell resting peacefully. They stay at a hotel for the night, and it seems like everything will be fine.
But since this is a horror movie, and there’s still about half the running time left, we know that this can’t be the case. Nell shows up at the hotel, vomits a little, and isn’t responding to Cotton or the rest of the crew. They take her to a hospital, but the tests all come back normal. Most of the rest of the film follows their attempts to get her healthy, all while feeling pressure from the highly religious Louis (who has no real problem with putting a gun in our hero’s face).
The film toys around the idea of whether or not Nell is actually possessed, or if it’s just a psychological problem. The answer is never completely given, although the ending did seem pretty clear to me. However, I didn’t like the final scene, which comes very abruptly just when things were kind of getting interesting. But that’s what a sequel is for, right? Tie up those loose ends? Honestly, we probably don’t need one, because this is a film that is more effective without everything explicitly explained.
When this movie works, it’s because everything happening on-screen allows you to ignore all of the problems with filming this way. When the action holds your attention, you don’t notice things like how instant jumps to different camera angles occur, or the added sound effects. Unfortunately, not enough happens to hold your attention all the way through. There’s too much time spent where all that happens is Nell looking kind of evil, but just standing there, staring at the camera, not doing anything of interest. And then there is also the first 40 or so minutes where nothing happens at all, and while this gives you a good idea of the personality of Cotton, that’s all it serves to accomplish.
When it works, The Last Exorcism hinges on the performance of Ashley Bell, who has to contort herself whenever possible, because that’s what a demon would do to someone, right? She give sit her all though, and I would assume that she’d be incredibly sore after filming. It looked like she was in pain while twisting her body in all sorts of directions, and while it isn’t pleasant to see this, it holds our attention, and is genuinely creepy.
I’m still not sure why we needed this to be made in a mockumentary style. All of the cons that come from this filming style end up detracting from the tension that it tries to create, and there’s no real reason it couldn’t have just been filmed normally. The idea that Cotton is trying to reveal the hoax that is exorcism ends up being forgotten about, and not including that back story would have cut out some of the unnecessary time spent not doing anything, and allowed more traditional filming techniques to be employed.
The Last Exorcism is occasionally creepy, but never downright scary. It has some genuinely good moments, like most of the time Ashley Bell gets to contort herself in various ways, but the mockumentary style of shooting ends up undermining most of that good effort. There are also too many points where nothing much happens, and also a very abrupt and unsatisfactory concluding scene. It’s okay, but it’s not great, and it also ends up being kind of silly, instead of frightening.