Reviewed at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival.
“The Last Exorcism” screened outdoors at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, and whether you packed a jacket or not, there were chills to be had.
Soon after producer Eli Roth thanked the crowd for “loving Satan more than ‘Twilight,'” a reference to the “Eclipse” world premiere happening across town, “The Last Exorcism” made its world premiere, three months removed from pulling out of SXSW after being acquired by Lionsgate and enduring some criticism along the way when it was revealed to have a PG-13 rating.
Only the MPAA knows how the latter happened. Any concerns about the freaky “Last Exorcism” skimping on the frights should be wiped away like the blood that makes its way onto the lens of a camera crew that accompanies the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) as he travels to (the fictional) Ivanwood, Louisiana to cure the 16-year-old Nell (Ashley Bell) of what appears to be demonic possession.
Although other men of the cloth have had their doubts in films before, Marcus’ level of skepticism is well beyond “The Exorcist”‘s Father Karras. He chalks up the cross burns on the girl’s neck to a nickel allergy and uses props to enhance his initial exorcism.
Director Daniel Stamm juxtaposes Nell’s writhing on a bed surrounded by candles with Marcus showing off the button he presses to emit smoke from his cross.
One wouldn’t know it from the film’s trailer, but “The Last Exorcism” actually has quite the sense of humor, something that’s long been a specialty of Roth to disarm an audience before sinking in the fangs. Here, with writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, who’ve blurred the line between reality and fiction before in their dark 2004 comedy “Mail Order Bride,” Roth shepherds a film of similar mock documentary structure.
The Rev. Marcus is introduced in a Christopher Guest-style opening that scans over pictures of his days as a preacher’s son who presided over exorcisms at age ten, and shows him in the present day so incredulous about his faith since his own son was nearly miscarried that he’s slipping his mother’s banana bread recipe into his sermons to see if anyone will notice.
There’s money involved when Marcus leaves his Baton Rouge ministry for Ivanwood, but what brings him out to the Sweetzers’ farm is the potential to disprove the practice that has been his bread and butter for years. As it turns out, the Sweetzers are nearly as dubious about him, with Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), the red-headed brother of Nell, tossing rocks at his car after telling the Reverend to turn around and Nell’s father Louis (Louis Herthum) suspicious of all the cameras. All of their doubts about each other are confirmed soon enough, which is what keeps “The Last Exorcism” on its toes.
There are skittish violins, loud thumps and inhuman contortions to pump up the suspense, but Botko and Gurland’s script is extremely clever in how it positions each character so you’re never quite sure who or what to believe. It’s a horror film of uncertainty well before the visceral scares set in, yet when they do, they’re rattling.
Not all of “The Last Exorcism” works — it could stand to be tightened up a little as the camera crew starts to get more involved as the film wears on, reminding the audience of what they’re watching, and I wasn’t entirely sold on the ending, which isn’t as canny about playing upon genre expectations as a lot of the film is, but the film’s too much fun to dismiss for those reasons alone.
As they say, the devil is in the details and in the case of “The Last Exorcism,” that’s certainly true.
“The Last Exorcism” opens on August 27th.
[Photos: “The Last Exorcism,” Lionsgate, 2010]