Scary Movies (and Super Creeps) — The Last Exorcism

Every week Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a horror movie worth checking out. Today: The devil went down to Louisiana.

Cotton Marcus is a man of God who doesn’t believe the gospel he preaches. Full of pep and energy in his sermons, Reverend Marcus has long since stopped taking what he espouses on the pulpit as seriously as his congregation does.

It isn’t that Rev. Marcus is a bad person — he’s good-natured and has a winning smile and ease with others. He’s just grounded in the reality of the world — and that reality doesn’t include room for messages from God or demons from hell.

Unfortunately, Rev. Marcus is about to be reminded that even though he stopped believing in the supernatural, the supernatural never stopped believing in itself.

The Last Exorcism, the horror film produced by Eli Roth that combines the scares of The Exorcist with the found-footage sub-genre, is very nearly a great film. Director Daniel Stamm and writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland have created a film that’s tense when it needs to be, charming in other places and features more concentrated entertainment than most other horror films to be released in the last few years.

As Rev. Cotton Marcus, Patrick Fabian is top-notch. Combining good ol’ fashioned Southern charm with the weariness of a man who has lost his faith but retained his mortgage, Rev. Marcus is a hero audiences can root for — even at his most smug and condescending.

The last of a long line of exorcists, Rev. Marcus was raised in a deeply devout family. Taking on the role of preacher before he could even grow hair on his private parts, Cotton took to the role like a Jesus fish in holy water. As he grew older and had children, though, Cotton began to fret over his role as an exorcist — especially as he learned of the increasing number of deaths and heartache other exorcists across the country had left in their wake.

As the movie begins, Rev. Marcus has assembled a film crew to follow him as he exposes the fraudulent nature of exorcisms. This, of course, means taking the crew along on one last exorcism.

The film does not shy away from laughs. As Cotton showcases the different ways exorcisms are staged and faked, there is plenty of tension relief — the perfect ingredient for balancing the dread and scares that will come later.

As Rev. Marcus, Fabian is everything a horror movie like this needs in a leading man. Found footage films fail more often than not because of the extreme unpleasantness of their characters. If audiences are forced to follow the film from the perspective of douchebag, they will turn against the film itself.

While Rev. Marcus may be a character whose tactics are questionable, there is no denying his likability and charm. Audiences will have no problem following him along as the film progresses and things begin to get creepy.

Speaking of creepy, Ashley Bell plays Nell Sweetzer, the young girl who is supposedly possessed by a demon. Nell is an innocent girl who has been raised in near-captivity by her over-protective father. Isolated from the rest of the world, Nell has managed to retain a bright-eyed perspective and sugary-sweet disposition.

As somebody who has spent time around fundamentalist Christians of the non-scary variety, I can say without a doubt that Bell absolutely hit the nail on the head with her performance as Nell. The character is loveable to the max — which makes it all the more frightening to see her transform into a limber, animal-butchering monster.

Louis Herthum plays Louis Sweeetzer, Nell’s ultra-religious father and the man who called Rev. Marcus to perform the exorcism. Caleb Landry Jones is Caleb Sweetzer, Nell’s brooding brother.

After Caleb and Nell’s mother died, Caleb became angry and turned away from the faith. He sees Rev. Marcus’ arrival as bad news and isn’t afraid to show it with angry words and angrier threats.

The filmmakers did an excellent job casting the film. From the principal leads (including Iris Bahr as the faux-documentary’s producer) to the side characters that populate the Louisiana backwoods that the devil has come to play in, the cast of The Last Exorcism is pitch-perfect — combining the right amount of cinéma vérité realism and the genuine acting ability that it takes to make a successful found footage film.

Despite the film’s PG-13 rating, there are plenty of scares and creepy scenes to be had. Ashley Bell’s haunted performance isn’t quite the ghoul-faced, profanity shouting child harpy of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist but The Last Exorcism isn’t exactly The Exorcist either.

With its Washington D.C. setting and privileged in peril plot, The Exorcist is very much a horror film of the North.  The Last Exorcist, on the other hand, revels in its Southern roots — seeping itself in the dirty backwoods of the swamp where anything can happen to the unlucky if you mess with the wrong people. The Last Exorcism has more in common with the Stephen Hopkins 2007 film The Reaping — in plot, if not quality.

In The Exorcist it was a shock that such a young girl was put through the demonic paces of possession. In The Last Exorcism, it almost feels like a shock that it didn’t happen sooner. The South is a scary place, is what I’m trying to say — but the scares don’t hit you over the face with pea soup and bloody crucifixes.

Bell’s performance is rooted in realism. Besides some possible enhancing when Bell contorts her body in pain during the possession, there are no overt computer-generated special effects. Bell transforms herself from the sweet Christian girl next door into a demon from hell by using nothing more than her body language and a blank-eyed stare.

The Last Exorcism does a lot right. In fact, the film’s major faults are rooted in the very nature of the found footage sub-genre. Like most other found footage films, The Last Exorcism falls apart if you think about it too much. Who found the footage? Who edited it together? Why the hell would they have kept filming when the shit hit the fan?

By ignoring the tingling sense of ill-logic that tickle the bottom of your mind’s feet, you will be able to enjoy The Last Exorcism for what it is — solid horror that successfully utilizes humor to break the tension.

I liked the film so much I would have considered The Last Exorcism for a best of the year list if it weren’t for the film’s weak ending. The Last Exorcism is a film that proves just how important a good ending is. When the film peters out in the midst of an explosion of underdeveloped ideas and cool yet underutilized concepts, audiences will walk away feeling a bit unsatisfied.

The film had some interesting ideas presented towards the end — unfortunately it didn’t take time to carry them through to their potential. But isn’t that the way of life? We don’t always get to see things through to the end. Sometimes we’re carted away before we can get to the truly cool parts and that’s certainly the case with The Last Exorcism.

The film felt like it was building slowly but surely throughout the course of the plot towards something big — continually ratcheting up the stakes. Just when you feel you’re about to get to that creamy nougat center that’s been teasing you for the last hour and a half, though, the film ends. Boom. Bam. That’s it.

A weak ending doesn’t take away from the film’s scares and laughs, though. And neither should it take away from its box office performance. Go and see the film — pound for pound, its more entertaining than most other horror films you will see this year. That’s the Lord’s truth.

For the sake of full disclosure, movies that deal with Satan and demonic possession are the only type of films that still scare Robert Saucedo. He is a good Cat’lick boy after all. Follow Robert on Twitter @robsaucedo2500.

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