Classics do a lot of good, but that good is typically exhausted in one fell swoop. Plus that bit of good is usually exclusive to the classic itself. This reigns especially true in horror, where one good thing leads to endless, terrible others. The Exorcist is regarded as one of the most effective and poignant works in horror history, it is just a shame that for decades it would lead to lukewarm attempts, some of which even share the same branding. Same goes for The Blair Witch Project, original and startling for its time, the shaky-cam method became one of those annoying ‘things’ that comes in swarms then hibernates for a few years. Which is why Daniel Stamm and Eli Roth’s The Last Exorcism has a bit of a fight ahead. Instead of seeming inspired by the greats, the film enthusiasts’ gut feeling places it in a parade of hopeless copycats. So forgetting everything, just everything, the champions of the genre and the stack of dirt that grounds them, is this handheld devil one you yourself should risk an encounter with?
Spoilers to follow.
Reverend Cotton Marcus is a good man, he’s lived his life as a liar and a thief but he’s never been out to hurt anyone. He is a shining star in his local community, an addictive priest and more curious a famous exorcist. However his holy water is more snake oil than the blessing of the lord, and starting now he’ll be the first one to tell you. After being rattled by a story of an exorcism related death, he wants to go on the record that the whole field is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To do so, Cotton has agreed to let a film crew document his last gig. Unfortunately for Marcus and his team, this final job goes a little bit deeper than the surface, and Marcus will be forced to confront his own faith after being so close to losing it.
Marcus, played by Patrick Fabian, truly ties the whole effort together. And thank the lord because he’s soaking up the screen 70 percent of the time. Marcus is sly, likable, believable, and even if he’s wronged many before, his moral engagement is one that will click and make you pray for his salvation. He also grows closer to the characters around him, conversing with the film crew as things get more intimate, even growing to understand and cease undermining the ‘backwater’ family he investigates. The film even balances out the possibility that there may in fact be nothing paranormal about the case at all, and while the poster and trailers have probably convinced you otherwise, Cotton Marcus makes a very strong case that theories grounded in reality can be far more disturbing than hellborn options.
It doesn’t take very long for this film to cut its ties with so many bad apples that have landed around it. It proves that its elements, as overused as they may be recently, can be more circumstantial and in fact beneficial to the final product. The first person camera is more of a documentary than discarded found footage, and the bulk of the film, filled with convincing b-roll and casual encounters, makes this more believable as an entry to HotDocs than yet another camcorder tour of hell. Even the exorcism gives the matter more thought than just blaming it all on the devil. It makes you consider our depraved social environment that breeds desperate paranoia, even if there is in fact something lurking in the shadows.
Everything is wonderfully grounded, acting is sharp as a pitchfork and even the ‘horror’ itself is ingeniously reserved, so while cheap thrills are limited, the lasting effect will stick with you while you are trying to sleep at night. If you’ve found yourself tired of typically overused horror tropes, and perhaps even turned off by Roth’s involvement, The Last Exorcism will catch you off guard. This isn’t trying to usurp the classics, but instead does the smart thing by paving its own unique way. The film may make you a believer yet. In one thing or another.