When you see the trailer for a film like The Last Exorcism, with its grainy hand-held footage, no-name cast and a girl who looks like she could physically rotate her head better than any tricked-out Linda Blair doll, you get your hopes up. You think, wow, this could be the best of the Blair Witch and The Exorcist with a little Emily Rose thrown in. And should you be so astute as to catch the fact that it’s produced by Eli Roth (the writer/director of Hostel, not to mention the Bear Jew in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), you start to get a real sense that things might get pretty gory pretty fast–deliciously, heart-poundingly gory.
Unfortunately, trailers can be misleading.
The film opens up with a glimpse of the flashy ministry of the fast-talking Deacon Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a handsome man of god who can get his practitioners hallelujah-ing about everything from the good word to banana bread. But for all of his fervor and pageantry, the deacon is having a crisis of faith lately, which isn’t good for someone who performs exorcisms. In fact, he thinks exorcisms are jokes that can become dangerous if they get out of hand, so he mostly performs them to do damage control with the hope of one day exposing them for what they are: psychosomatic manifestations of socio-religious anxiety (or something like that anyway). It’s for this reason he decides to let a film crew document his latest house-call, the footage of which is the film–a clever gimmick if it were still 1999.
As the deacon and film crew leave his sunny parish to travel to the deep South in response to a farmer’s plea for help, the tone changes from comically light-hearted to the kind of perverse paranoia that only the backwoods can inspire. It seems that the farmer’s livestock is being mutilated and the only logical culprit is his sweat-as-pie daughter. But the farmer isn’t without understanding; she is possessed by a demon after all. So when the deacon shows up with his bag of tricks, complete with demon sound effects and a smoking cross, to provide the family religious catharsis, he finds a well-intentioned father who loves his daughter very much (perhaps a little too much, but that gets addressed later in the movie).
What doesn’t get addressed very well in the film is the trailer’s promise of gory fun. Sure there’s a healthy amount of blood, some cow guts and a kitty that’s seen better days but other than that the film takes a cue from predecessors like Blair Witch and, more recently Paranormal Activity, by allowing the viewer’s imagination to run wild with a minimum of prompting, which is actually an admirable feat, but like I said, the trailer sets you up to expect something different. Even so, some of the freaky bits are pretty good and a lot of them play off the ghostly stare and otherworldly contortions of the farmer’s daughter, portrayed with haunting effect by newcomer Ashely Bell. Her nocturnal possession turns her in to a writhing fiend, but it’s her vulnerable daytime innocence that draws you into her plight and sets you up for the scares.
Playing into the that innocence with conviction are Fabin, whose torn resolve between skepticism and religious duty helps you buy his character’s decisions (well until the end), and Louis Hethum as the father who desperately wants to save his daughter’s soul. But perhaps the real standout is Caleb Landry Jones as the farmer’s son and dutiful brother, whose lackadaisical country-boy affect is so underlyingly menacing; one could argue he’s the scariest character in the whole film.
With such strong performances going a long way to make the film believable, it’s a shame that the ending falls so painfully short. The “ah-hah” moment isn’t really impressive and the conclusion is too cockamamie and disorienting to be as rushed as it is those last few minutes. It left this cheated viewer damning the trailer back to Hell.