Oofa! So let me preface this by saying that I’m a pretty big Eli Roth fan. I think he’s one of the sharpest minds making Horror today. And while he hasn’t really directed anything since the merely “OK” Hostel 2, the man knows what it takes to make not only great but campy horror… so I went into The Last Exorcism, which he produced (his first as a producer), hoping it would be an extension of the witty, blood-soaked and tongue-in-cheek style he not only helped resurrect, but take to the next level.
Roth has been tweeting endlessly about the film and crowd reactions to its numerous festival screenings, reputed gorehound sites were singing its praises, and it had a clever viral campaign a week or so prior to its national debut. So you know, I had a pretty good feeling that this film would deliver a few solid thrills, some chuckles, and gore, gore and more gore. Oofa! Was I ever wrong.
I’ll give the film its due in how it cleverly revamped the tired exorcism model into something that could have been a great premise. Cotton Marcus has been groomed to be a reverend since he was a child, eventually taking over for his father preaching sermons and performing exorcisms. Problem is that Cotton is a great showman, and all of this is just a fun little act. For him, being a reverend is not about faith, but simply telling people what they want to hear to get past their problems. When Cotton reads about an autistic child who dies at the hands of another reverend during an exorcism, he has a crisis of conscious and decides that it’s time to expose exorcisms for the ruse that they really are. He teams up with a film crew who sets out to document every aspect of the preparation and staging of what will hopefully be the last exorcism ever.
Cotton and the crew head down to Louisiana to the Sweetzer farm after receiving a letter from Louis Sweetzer to come help his daughter, Nell, who is supposedly possessed and slaughtering livestock in her sleep. Cotton obviously doesn’t believe in demons and for him, the whole production of an “exorcism” is a sort of shock therapy for people move past some psychological baggage that they’re carrying. So Cotton does his whole exorcism shtick and proclaims young Nell cured. But funny thing is that later that night, Nell shows up in Cotton’s hotel room acting creepy as all fuck. From then on, the film shifts to Cotton trying to figure out what the underlying cause of her “demonic” behavior is, as the audience is left guessing if Nell is actually crazy or possessed all the way until the end.
Before I tear into the film, I would like to single out both Patrick Fabian (Cotton) and Ashley Bell (Nell) for their acting… actually the acting in The Last Exorcism is, overall, pretty damn good. It’s the directing and the plot that leave a lot to be desired. The whole film is shot from the perspective of the film crew’s cameraman, except none of it whatsoever looks like it was shot from one camera by a guy documenting something. It’s over-directed and so strategically shot and paced that you can’t help but wonder why the film couldn’t just have been about a film crew documenting the exorcism rather than the supposed “real” film. This fault is very hard to get past, like speaking with someone with a bad toupee. Try as you might to get past it, you just keep wondering “how do they not know how bad this looks?” instead of actually concentrating on the conversation… or movie in this case.
The guessing game of what’s at the root of Nell’s “possession” is also pretty tedious and predictable — a melodramatic see-saw back and forth centered around family trauma that just makes you want to scream, “Ok, we get it! Show us more blood and creepy contortion shit!”, most of which had already been used for the trailers. After dragging on and on, at the very end you’re gifted with a bungled yet clever twist (right before sputtering into either a poor homage or comically bad rip of The Blair Witch Project) that just leaves you contemplating “why couldn’t this more just have been more of this?”. Those 5 minutes at the end are some of the films most interesting and it’s only suspenseful moment. It’s a shame they weren’t fleshed out more.
Maybe I expected too much from something Eli Roth would put his name and money behind, and that’s probably my fault because horror is horror and even the greats produce their fair share of crap. The Last Exorcism is about on par with the Horror movies that get dumped at 1am on Showtime 2, and that’s probably when and where you should catch it… preferably from the middlepoint on, after stumbling home half-soused.- My Pal the Crook