Do not hold the marketing campaign for Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism against it. It is not Stamm's fault that marketers opted to sell the picture as nothing more than a simple shock-a-minute scare fest and ignore the many other levels of what is at play here. And it is certainly not his fault that in the process of doing so they included shots - not necessarily the money shots, but still recognizable images - from the big moments of the film in the trailers, thereby hobbling their effectiveness in the film. It is a shame that the marketing for a film as subtle and nuanced as this has been treated in such a heavy handed way not because it is dishonest, per se - the film really does deliver a number of solid scares - but because it both creates a false expectation of what the film actually is as a whole while also undercutting the effectiveness of the very element that they are 'selling' to the paying public. I only hope that audiences are able to see past that potentially fatal error in judgment.
Much more revealing of what this film is actually about is its original - Cotton - the film having been initially named for its complex, conflicted and entirely compelling lead character, the Reverend Cotton Marcus. A traveling preacher of the deep south, charismatic variety, Cotton was groomed for the pulpit from childhood, his preacher father recognizing the value of a child minister as a gimmick to pack the crowds in. Cotton is a charming, intelligent man, one who took on the family mantle early and carried it well, preaching and performing exorcisms - a family sideline stretching back for generations - from childhood into his adult life. But now, decades into his life in the church, Cotton has realized that his faith is false and the practice of exorcism puts more people at risk than it actually helps - what help it offers being of the psychological variety, in his opinion - and so he has arranged to bring a documentary crew with his to what is meant to be his final exorcism to chronicle the extent of his own fraud and the misbehavior of others like him.
But what he finds is not exactly what he expects. Nell Sweetzer is a charming but deeply troubled girl, one squirreled away by her overprotective father after the death of her mother. They lived a quiet, tragic life until Nell began being plagued by late night black outs and sleep walking spells that ended with the teenaged girl gutting the family livestock with a kitchen knife. Believing her problem only psychological, Reverend Marcus puts on his normal show intending to later push the family to seek medical help only to have things go very wrong indeed when the girl appears, catatonic, standing over his hotel room bed late that night ...
Do not take the opening paragraph of this piece to mean that The Last Exorcism is not an effective, frightening horror film. It is. The scare sequences are well executed and very effective, the imagery striking home all the more because of the naturalistic manner in which it is shot. But, that said, it is very much a horror picture of the slow burn variety, not the smack-you-in-the-face series of jump scares that the trailers promise. If what you are looking for is the SCARIEST MOVIE EVER then you need to be aware that this is not the type of movie that Stamm and his crew have set out to make.
No, while the exorcism of the title may be the final major event of the film - the driving force of the plot - the actual core of the picture is Cotton Marcus himself, the troubled preacher being forced to come to terms with his own faith - or lack thereof - and the limitations of his own beliefs. And Marcus, frankly, is an absolutely fascinating character. Played by veteran TV support player by Patrick Fabian in what absolutely deserves to be a star-making performance, Cotton is a sort of sincere cynic, a man whose belief system has failed him entirely without robbing him of his morality. Though he is a fraud he is a fraud with a purpose and the journey this film takes him on is one of the most sincere and intelligent treatments of the tension between faith and reason put on the big screen in years, all of it being embodied by a performance that places Fabian into a school of character actors somewhere between Chris Cooper and Josh Brolin.
And Fabian's not the only actor doing stellar work here. The entire cast - particularly Ashley Bell as Nell, Caleb Landry Jones (soon to be seen as Banshee in X Men: First Class) as Nell's brother Caleb, and Louis Herthum as their father Louis - are stellar, with not a single wrong note struck in any of the performances. Stamm is clearly a stellar actors director and I would suggest that this is very likely the best performed film ever to adopt the moc-doc format.
Supporting those actors is the script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. Not content to play to the genre tropes and the bumps and crashes, the duo instead deliver a script that treats every one of the characters with respect, giving each and every one a distinct, wonderfully nuanced feel. You know these people from the first moment you meet them, even the minor characters, and that simply cannot happen without a combination of strong writing and strong performance.
On the directing front, Stamm's ability to handle actors and draw strong performances out of them has already been noted but it is also worth commenting on his ability to balance out the immediacy of the moc-doc format with a shooting and editing style that keeps the film feeling like cinema rather than just some kids messing around with a camera. The moc-doc style is often used as an excuse to pardon poor cinematography and choppy editing but neither accusation can be made here. This is a well made film on all fronts, one that takes full advantage of the moc-doc style to place the audience in the middle of the action without resorting to massive amounts of shaky cam and cheap shadow tricks.
On the negative side of the picture, there is an unfortunate double ending that plays less as a shocking reveal - again, because part of it is shown in the trailers - than like a bit of an anti-climax after the personal intimacy than has come before, a sequence enough at odds with the bulk of the film that I wonder how much of it has to do with the lengthy tweaking process the picture has been subjected to since being completed well over a year ago. It's not a horrible turn - and is absolutely a necessary one in terms of completing Cotton's character arc - but it could certainly have come together with a bit more oomph.
An intelligent, well executed film that treats both its characters and its audience with respect, The Last Exorcism has unfortunately been saddled with an ad campaign that does neither. See it anyway