Watching The Last Exorcism is like settling into a comfortable deck chair and pleasurably sipping a tall glass of iced tea on a hot summer day only to realize, too late, that you’d plucked the glass from a dirty dishwasher. I hate it when that happens, pleasure turning into a sick feeling.
Why are endings so hard? So many movies mess them up. Alternate endings are common on DVDs as if the moviemakers were trying anything to find a workable ending. The similar Paranormal Activity flirted with at least three endings before finally getting it half right.
The Last Exorcism is the latest in a trend of horror movies that started with The Blair Witch Project and continued with the under-seen [Rec] that purport to be documentaries shot shakily with camcorders and discovered some time later. It’s almost the best.
The movie works so well because it takes care to develop interesting and truly likable characters. The protagonist is Cotton Marcus. A preacher since he was a boy, he has experienced a loss of faith and is now little more than a charlatan.
He realizes that once he gets his congregation going he can say anything and they’ll shout “Hallelujah.” He proves this by reciting a banana bread recipe mid-sermon. He performs exorcisms, but they are really just cynical magic acts with strings to shake beds, pills to make water bubble, and pre-recorded demon sounds.
Cotton has enlisted a documentary crew to follow him on a typical exorcism trip to make a record of the foolishness of such things. But they, of course, get more than they expected. The “possessed” girl, Nell, is a pretty, shy farm girl being sheltered by her father and creepy brother after the death of her mother.
Farm animals are being slaughtered each night and the girl’s nightgowns are turning up soaked in blood with the same regularity. Her dad is convinced that he’s failed once again at keeping the devil out of their house. He’s at wit’s end. An exorcism is his last hope before he solves the problem with a shotgun.
The relationship that develops between Cotton and Nell is palpable and touching. I was very impressed by how well the movie understands that rich and likeable characters make the mayhem to follow all the more identifiable – and terrifying.
And the contrast between the girl and the demon girl is perfectly striking. Here, the normal Nell is such a sweet creation that our skin crawls right off our bodies when we see her bent and twisted, backing into corners, and lurking atop a towering wardrobe.
I have one negative comment about the execution of the documentary conceit. When moviemakers decide to make a fake documentary, they sign a contract with the audience, agreeing to not do anything that couldn’t be achieved by that documentary crew.
The crew consists of Cotton – always on camera – a camera operator and a sound person. So, how did they manage crosscutting during the key exorcism scenes, something that would require two cameras? Those scenes were otherwise working so well though that I just shrugged it off as an unfortunate bit of sloppiness.
Here’s some advice: Late in the movie, there is a lull. The film crew is driving away from the farmhouse and you’ll be wondering, “Is this how it ends?” And then Cotton turns the car around and heads back. That’s your cue to pretend the movie is over and get up and leave.