Oddly enough, “The Last Exorcism” turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the late summer movie season. Granted, this summer has been chocked-full of unusually average pictures, but this movie stands out as a fairly engaging PG-13 thriller. The funny thing is that I walked into the film not expecting too much. I originally planned on seeing the much more ludicrous “Machete” and judging by the trailers, I expected this to be just another forgettable experience at the movies, but I am here to say one might be surprised.
The film follows Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a man raised up to be an evangelical pastor in a highly Christian town in Louisiana. Often looked upon as the person to perform exorcisms on others, he struggles more and more with the legitimacy of the process, as well as with his faith. On his last leg, The Reverend hires a film crew to follow him and make a documentary to bring to light the fact that exorcisms are all phony. The lucky victim of the Reverend’s last “exorcism” is Nell (Ashley Bell), a perky young farm girl who, according to her family, is slowly being controlled by demons.
These claims mean nothing to Cotton, who hopes to get himself out of the situation the easiest way possible. Using practical effects to give the allusion that he is performing an authentic exorcism, the harder it is to side with this guy; he is shamelessly exploiting the family’s gullibility and toying with their beliefs and fears. However, this situation gets far more out of hand than predetermined. Nell’s symptoms of demonic possession escalate much to her family’s dismay. These symptoms cause her to act out involuntarily, draw images both violent and clairvoyant and, worst of all, kill family pets (poor kitty never knew what hit him). Much to the Reverend’s dismay, he happens to be caught in the middle of the situation with absolutely no control.
The whole movie is shot in the style of last year’s sleeper hit “Paranormal Activity” and “Cloverfield.” The grainy film texture gives the impression of a true documentary and the events taking place imply that everything caught on camera is really just lost footage found by others. I seem to have an interesting inclination toward these types of films. Maybe it is because I like the feeling of reality clashing with the supernatural. But even taking out the paranormal elements, I think we might still have an interesting film experiment. The first half hour or so has very little to do with spirits entering our world and focuses more on the introduction to the characters who, despite sometimes being portrayed in a less-than-commendable light, are believable as real human beings.
But the even more surprising part is that scares do exist in the film. The filmmakers don’t just rely on the cheap jump scares that even most R-rated movies stoop to these days. That is not to say there are not any at all, but the inherently frightening part about the movie was the uncanny atmosphere it shaped. The small town farm setting gives the viewer an unsettling sensation of both claustrophobia and suspicion. And I don’t know what it is, but something about young Ashley Bell’s possessed look later in the film sends chills down my spine, even if nothing else is prompted to cause the feeling.
My only two problems with the film as a whole were the ending and the music department. The ending, just like all the other thrillers of this genre, doesn’t give any sort of conclusive evidence; it ends abruptly and leads up to nothing satisfying. The music department…why does it even exist in this type of movie? Movies like “Cloverfield” had no soundtrack throughout any of the action onscreen, increasing its worldly believability. Where the film fails is that during a jump scene, you will hear the familiar blast of orchestrated instruments normally found in narrative-driven thrillers. But this is not one of those: it is a firsthand account of (supposedly) real-time events.
Despite flaws that are far and few in between, “The Last Exorcism” is a thrilling piece of work, complete with believable scripts and set pieces, great execution and admittedly good performances from the cast. I hate to say it, but I really enjoyed the whole thing. It offered more than what I would have expected otherwise and blew my expectations. It isn’t groundbreaking (as a matter of fact, it is a small step downward from “Paranormal Activity”), but this effort ranks among the few movies worth seeing right now.