Employing the same type of “found footage” gimmick made popular by The Blair Witch Project over a decade ago, The Last Exorcism aspired to do for exorcist movies what Paranormal Activity did for haunted house movies. The film’s plot is unremarkable, but an effective, authentic-feeling found footage approach could’ve allowed The Last Exorcism to stand as an excellent genre pic and the first genuinely terrifying exorcism-related movie since The Exorcist back in 1973. Unfortunately, the finished product is a far cry from what it should have been. A common complaint of found footage movies is that they’re boring, and The Last Exorcism is guilty of this cardinal sin to an unforgivable extent, with leaden direction and a constant feeling of artificiality.
Southern preacher Cotton Marcus (Fabian) comes from a long line of ministers, but is nevertheless confronted with a crisis of faith and maintains that exorcisms are a sham that merely serve as a placebo cure for mentally ill persons. In order to prove that exorcisms and demons are bogus, he invites along a couple of documentarians as he travels to Louisiana to perform what he intends to be his final exorcism. The supposedly possessed individual is virginal teenage girl Nell (Bell), whose anxious father Louis (Herthum) believes that she slaughters livestock at night under the control of a demon. To provide the family with peace of mind, Cotton proceeds to perform his fraudulent exorcism routine on Nell and prepares to head home. Unfortunately, it seems that Nell might not be free of the demons, and what begins as a mission to prove the nonexistence of demons turns into something more sinister and unholy.
Any found footage movie sets out to achieve a sense of realism and authenticity, or else it just looks like a lousily-filmed student movie using a gimmick to excuse glaring flaws. Alas, The Last Exorcism feels too staged. It even draws attention to its artificiality by blatantly cheating – music is present to underscore “scares”, there are too many convenient transition shots, and the cast even contains established performers. Most critically, there is supposed to be only one cameraman, but several sequences are edited in a way that’d be impossible to achieve without multiple camera set-ups or several takes. It’s clear that director Daniel Stamm wanted to deploy filmmaking techniques forbidden by the found footage approach, resulting in a picture that lacks the documentary essence it was relying upon in order for it to not seem like a cheap Exorcist knock-off. Further compounding these faults are scenes in which it seems ridiculous for the cameraman to keep on filming. Not to mention, a real documentary cameraman wouldn’t be so liberal with zooms – indeed, the zooms are so constant and unnecessary that they fast become an annoyance. Stamm’s efforts may be enough for some viewers, but anyone who thinks too deeply into the filmmaking techniques will see The Last Exorcism for the muddled attempt at realism that it is.
However, The Last Exorcism does have its strengths, with strong performances from an eminently watchable Patrick Fabian as Cotton and a highly effective Ashley Bell as Nell. There’s also a sharp sense of satire pervading a number of scenes (Cotton’s staged exorcism on Nell is especially hilarious), and the film has a few interesting comments to make about religion, faith, and Christianity. However, the film has enormous pacing issues – the first hour is devoid of anything approaching scares, leading to a disheartening lack of tension that’s exasperated by the uninspired script and drab mise-en-scène. Worst of all, the film tries to force upon us the possibility that Nell is just mentally unstable, but the filmmakers were clearly not interested in following through with this potentially interesting angle. Instead, The Last Exorcism ends with a complete dud of a finale (with cartoonish CGI) that takes the easy way out and was clearly made for cheap thrills (and not the kind of thrills we came here wanting to see). It’s a thoroughly moronic way to close the feature, proving that a terrible ending can affect a movie’s quality as a whole.
Perhaps the worst thing about The Last Exorcism is that it has zero replay value. Once you know how the movie ends, you will not want to take the journey again. The film is pretty boring the first time around, but it’s a borderline agonising bore when you watch it again with knowledge of how it ends. The brilliance of films like [Rec] and Paranormal Activity is that they sold their documentary conceit extremely well, and were engaging and well-written. The Last Exorcism doesn’t play by the same rules, and is marred by the generally dull filmmaking all-round. It has a handful of nice moments, but they’re few and far between. You’d be better off watching free exorcism videos on YouTube than enduring this sluggish missed opportunity.