When it hit theatres in 2010, The Last Exorcism was riding the peak of the found-footage horror wave. Three years earlier, Paranormal Activity solidified found-footage as a viable subgenre. Cloverfield, [REC] and its American remake, Quarantine, The Fourth Kind, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, among others, flooded the cineplexes. But The Last Exorcism was a something of a surprising box office hit. It grossed over $40 million on a budget that was just shy of $2 million. That kind of box office money inevitably leads to a sequel, which failed to find either the same financial or critical success.
Evangelical preacher Marcus Cotton has been performing exorcisms since was a young boy. But those exorcisms have all been elaborate hoaxes. Disturbed by a new story about an accident death caused by an overzealous exorcist, Cotton agrees to participate in a documentary to expose the exorcism industry. After he receives a handwritten letter pleading for help, Cotton decides to perform a last exorcism for the film crew to pull back the curtain. When he meets a troubled young woman, Nell, Marcus may discover that evil is very real.
The Last Exorcism Drags in the Middle, But Mostly Offers Consistent Scares
With so many exorcism movies, The Last Exorcism deserves credit for injecting fresh scares into a tired story. Director Daniel Stamm makes the most of the pseudo-documentary approach to craft genuine scares and suspense. Some of those scares are visceral images courtesy of actress Ashley Bells contortions during an exorcism. Yet Stamm effectively builds tension and earns a few edge-of-your seat moments as Cotton and his film crew search for Nell in a dark farmhouse. The story twists enough to keep old tropes from dragging things down. And the movie’s final twist feels earned. Besides it’s an unsettling moment that calls back to 70s Satanic Panic thriller, Race With The Devil.
Unfortunately, like most found-footage movies, The Last Exorcism fails to offer up a convincing reason why someone would hold to a camera while running for their life.
Not everything here works as intended. Consider it the bane of the found-footage subgenre. Every one of these movies needs to establish two things – why are people filming things and why don’t they stop when awful things start happening. Writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland spin up a better-than-average reason for the film crew. Most importantly, the use of the format feels central to the thriller’s premise of a disillusioned man confronting his faith. Unfortunately, like most found-footage movies, The Last Exorcism fails to offer up a convincing reason why someone would hold to a camera while running for their life. In addition, The Last Exorcism can’t help but drag in its middle act despite running at just under 90 minutes.
The Last Exorcism Has a Couple of Good Performances Amidst Familiar Religious Horror Narrative
Most audiences familiar with The Last Exorcism will likely remember two things – the UK poster controversy and Ashley Bell’s contortionist performance. Over 10 years removed, British citizen complaints about one of the promotional posters was much ado about nothing. And Bell won’t blow anyone away as the naïve Nell. She’s merely passable in the role, perhaps overselling the character’s innocence. Nonetheless, her contortions are suitability creepy and lend the movie something unique. On the other hand, its story of a disillusioned preacher who must inevitably regain their faith to confront evil is pretty standard for religious horror.
Whether the found-footage format really allows Stamm to craft a genuine character arc for Cotton remains questionable.
For obvious reasons, the ‘film crew’ following Cotton are largely non-factors for most of the most. As the disenfranchised Marcus Cotton, Patrick Fabian makes for a much more likable protagonist than one would expect. This is due in large part to Fabian’s charismatic performance and emotional range. One can’t help but believe that his ‘banana pie recipe sermon’ would actually fly in some parishes. Whether the found-footage format really allows Stamm to craft a genuine character arc for Cotton remains questionable. But Fabian makes you believe he’s ready to fight evil by the final scene.
The Last Exorcism Holds Up to Repeat Viewings
Though The Last Exorcism doesn’t quite escape all the demons of the subgenre, it more than holds up to multiple viewings. Like most found-footage movies, Stamm and his writers can’t cook up enough reasons why someone would keep filming. Moreover, the middle act drags a bit even when the movie comes in under 90 minutes. Nevertheless, The Last Exorcism has plenty of scares along with uncomfortable moments and a disturbing finale. Both Fabian and Bell are much better than what you’d usually find in this sort of the movie. After over a decade, The Last Exorcism remains a chilling edition to religious horror and the found-footage subgenre.