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Movie Review: The Last Exorcism

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I am a sucker for the faux documentary/found footage sub-genre of horror movies. Found footage is a genre of filmmaking, especially horror, in which all or a substantial part of a film is presented as an edit of recovered footage, often left behind by missing or dead protagonists. The events onscreen are seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, who often speaks off-screen. Filming is often done by the actors themselves as they recite their lines, and shaky camera work is also often used to maintain realism.

Films that you should be familiar with which fit into this category are horror films such as 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust (which is considered by many to be the godfather of found footage films), 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the 2007 Spanish film [REC], 2008’s Quarantine (which is an American remake of [REC]), 2008’s Cloverfield, and 2009’s Paranormal Activity. The 2009 sci-fi/horror film The Fourth Kind is done in a similar fashion. There have even been television shows that have used the found footage technique, such as the current Animal Planet series Lost Tapes as well as the eerie 1998 “one-off” show, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, which featured the “found” home movie of a family who had supposedly disappeared after seeing a huge explosion outside of their small country home.

With the exception of Paranormal Activity, I have been a huge fan of all of these films. Paranormal Activity is the only one that I felt truly failed at being suspenseful or even entertaining. For me, it failed on every level. Cannibal Holocaust is not my kind of movie, as it contains the killing of actual animals, but it does succeed at truly horrifying its viewers. Remove the gratuitous animal slaughter scenes, and you have the perfect found footage film.

The latest found footage film to hit theaters and rake in big dollars at the box office is The Last Exorcism, which is directed by Daniel Stamm and produced by Eli Roth and Mark Abraham.

The story concerns the Rev. Marcus Cotton, who had performed exorcisms for the church, for money, throughout his career, despite the fact that he does not believe in exorcism, demons or anything of the sort. Cotton wants this story of fraud to be known, so he invites a film crew to accompany him on his last exorcism, where he is to “cure” the daughter of a farmer whose livestock have been mysteriously slaughtered, and he believes his daughter is responsible for these killings. However, this unveiling of the “truth does not go exactly as planned, and the priest’s faith is put to the test.

“He who believes in God, must also accept the existence of the devil.”

If you take the basic plot from Steve Martin’s film Leap of Faith, infuse it with ideas from The Exorcist, Stigmata, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (as well as one other classic horror film, whose title I will not list here as it would only serve as a spoiler but if you’ve seen the film, I can imagine you’ll be able to figure it out) and mix it all together in the found footage style, what do you get? You get The Last Exorcism. Now, please do not take this as a disparaging remark. I am simply stating that I saw areas of this film which seem to have been inspired by the aforementioned films. The Leap of Faith similarities are drawn from the basic plot of a fake preacher/healer who knows he is a fake, and ends up coming face to face with the real McCoy.

The score is excellent in some places and poor in others, such as some of the scenes with Nell (the possibly possessed girl) in her possessed state, where it takes the viewer out of the moment where, had the score been more somber and eerie rather than totally chaotic, it could have lured the viewer in deeper.

The film contains some great twists and turns in different areas of the plot. M. Night Shyamalan could learn a thing or two about how to properly include twists into a film and make them impactful, whereas Night’s twists tend to shout to the audience, “I made you think one thing by intentionally misleading you. Haha. I sure fooled you, didn’t I?” which only serves to insult rather than surprise. Twists should shock or surprise the viewer, not make them feel stupid. The Last Exorcism contains many twists that keep the audience on its toes, but the filmmaker is careful not to use the twists to trick or belittle the viewer.

Sadly, this film does not have the same “what I’m watching is real” feel to it that a great found footage film should have. Some areas of the film do have that feeling, but it’s not present throughout, which is a flaw. With that being said, The Last Exorcism is very well done and I throughly enjoyed it. The first 20 minutes (give or take) are rather slow but it all pays off in the end.

The film stars Patrick Fabian as Rev. Cotton Marcus, Ashley Bell as Nell Sweetzer, Caleb Landry Jones as Caleb Sweetzer, and Louis Herthum as Louis Sweetzer. Fabian is good in the role of Rev. Marcus and Ashley Bell is fantastic as Nell, the young country girl who may or may not be possessed by a nasty demon.

There was a ton of hype surrounding the film, even far before its release. This is a hard thing for any film to measure up to but The Last Exorcism does an admirable job of doing its damnedest to live up to the hype.

I give The Last Exorcism 4.75 out of 5 stars, taking off that quarter of a star for the poor musical score choice (at times) but otherwise, it’s one of the best found footage films to date.

The film is rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content, thematic material, terror, and some sexual references.

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