The Last Exorcism Dir. Daniel Stamm

[Lionsgate; 2010]

Styles: horror, hysterical women
Others: The Exorcist

Given the string of shitty Exorcism films over the years, The Last Exorcism is not as bad as you might think. Many have tried to capture the perversion, gleeful horror, and fuck-you attitude of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but most have failed. With duds like the second and third installments of The Exorcist, then Stigmata, and then The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the satanic genre needed a serious boost. Writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland know this, and The Last Exorcism is both an homage to, and a parody of, religious horror flicks.

Reverend “Cotton” Marcus (Patrick Fabian, Professor Lasky from Saved by the Bell: The College Years!) is a Southern Baptist preacher who doesn’t practice what he preaches. Growing up a child evangelist, Cotton learned early on the word of God is currency. Another Marjoe Gortner (see the excellent documentary, Marjoe), Cotton loses faith in his almighty employer and blows the whistle on his whole routine: sermons, healing, and exorcisms. Why a Baptist preacher is performing a Catholic ritual in the rural South, I don’t know. But in films like these, Southern religious folk are dumb folk, and stupidity often breeds fear of the unknown. So why not exploit the South?

Filmmakers are sent to film Cotton’s exorcism of a young girl, Nell (Ashley Bell), living with a bible-spanking daddy (Louis Sweetzer) and an odd ginger brother (Caleb Landry Jones). The tag-along camera crew gives the film a Blair Witch feel, as they too become a part of Cotton’s act and subsequent horror. Cameras tremble and are asked to be shut off, because the audience figures in the storyline. A film’s reality is enforced by spectatorship, and at once you are aware of yourself, your beliefs, what is celluloid truth, and what is censorship. Naked faith is terrifying, both in its power and its sadness. The film gets real interesting when Cotton suggests a diagnosis of Nell’s possession as crippling shame over an unwanted pregnancy. Her father’s rule is of the chain-my-kid-to-their-bed kind, and Nell’s sense of sexual dysfunction is a result of overbearing doctrine. But Dad is old-fashioned, and any kind of psychiatric/medical help is out of the question. Cotton is forced to watch, and morally question, a father’s love for his sick daughter because of a belief so strong in Cotton’s field of work.

But — spoiler alert! — Nell is pregnant with a demon child, courtesy of the local Satanists which include her brother. I’m always a fan of Satanists. I once considered myself to be a Satanist. I was 16. Not sure if anything can really top Rosemary’s Baby in terms of great Satanist scenes, but The Last Exorcism doesn’t even come close. The ending is heavy-handed in the worst way, including shitty special effects, a reformed god-fearing Cotton, and a stupid cameraman. Perhaps the random Satanist twist suggests another level of deception; demon worshippers are smarter than Christians! Despite a smart exploitation of the too-serious-for-its-own-good Exorcism film, The Last Exorcism does little else to complicate what could be a critique of parenting, dogma, and the science of shame.

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